Legal Hotline: Communications Decency Act

  • Feb 06, 2019

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

Q:  What is the Communications Decency Act and what does it protect?

A:  The Communications Decency Act is a federal law that contains a safe-harbor provision for website operators from liability for defamatory content posted by third parties.  This law provides robust protection for news organization websites against liability for defamatory content posted by readers.

Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA) offers significant protection for “interactive computer services,” against defamation claims arising from third party content posted on websites. In enacting the law, Congress recognized that websites “offer a forum for a true diversity of political discourse, unique opportunities for cultural development, and myriad avenues for intellectual activity.” See 47 U.S.C. 230.  

In recognition of the importance of public discourse, section 230 of the CDA states: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."  This provision has been broadly interpreted by the courts and offers significant protection for website operators against liability for third party content posted online. News organizations that allow readers to post content on their websites will generally not be liable if the reader-generated content is defamatory. 

Many news media organizations screen reader-generated content to remove offensive or defamatory content.  The PNA Handbook contains a section on defamation that provides information on identifying defamatory content, and newspapers should continue to remove third party content from their websites as they see fit. However, you should not “re-write” third-party posts, because they could turn into your content and remove protection of section 230. 

Please note that the CDA does not offer protection for content created or developed by news staff or anyone acting on behalf of the news media company. In addition, section 230 does not offer protection against infringement against intellectual property rights such as copyright and trademark, although there is a federal law that provides websites a safe harbor against copyright infringement, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In order to take advantage of this law, website operators must register an individual to receive take-down notices and respond in a timely manner when a take-down demand is received.

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  Please consult your company’s attorney or the PNA Legal  Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.

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