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Updated May 1, 2014 - 11:53 am

Scottsdale gossip website owner appeals lawsuit in federal court

CINCINNATI — An appeals court heard arguments Thursday over whether a
Phoenix-area gossip website should have been immune from a defamation lawsuit brought by a
former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader, a case that Internet giants such as
Google and Facebook are watching closely.

Nik Richie, owner of The Dirty, based in Scottsdale, Ariz., should have been
granted immunity in the case under a 1996 federal law that provides broad
immunity to websites, his attorney argued to a three-judge panel of the 6th U.S.
Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati.

Former Bengals cheerleader Sarah Jones, also a former high school teacher in
northern Kentucky, sued Richie in December 2012 over posts about her and her
sexual history. Jones, 29, said the posts were untrue and caused mental anguish
and embarrassment.

In July, after federal Judge William Bertelsman rejected arguments that Richie
should be granted immunity, jurors found that the posts about Jones were
substantially false and that Richie had acted with malice or reckless disregard
by publishing them. They awarded Jones $338,000.

The posts about Jones were unrelated to a criminal case that emerged against
her in March 2012 in which she was accused of having sex with a teenage former
student. Jones later pleaded guilty to sexual misconduct and custodial
interference as part of a plea deal that allowed her to avoid jail time but
prohibited her from teaching again.

Jones and the student, then 17, said they’re engaged to be married.

Richie, 35, is asking the 6th Circuit to find that Bertelsman should never have
allowed Jones’ lawsuit against him, which would nullify the verdict. The court
could rule at any time.

In November, some of the Internet’s heaviest hitters said that if Bertelsman’s
decision is upheld, the case has the potential to “significantly chill online
speech.”

“If websites are subject to liability for failing to remove third-party
content whenever someone objects, they will be subject to the ‘heckler’s veto,’
giving anyone who complains unfettered power to censor speech,” according to
briefs filed Nov. 19 by lawyers for Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter,
Amazon, Gawker and BuzzFeed, among others.

After Thursday’s arguments, Richie’s attorney reiterated the magnitude of the
case.

“If Judge Bertelsman’s ruling stands, the Internet will have a nuclear
meltdown,” Arizona attorney David Gingras said. “It’ll change the rules across
the board for everyone. … Mark Zuckerberg could be dragged into court for what
users post on Facebook.”

Thursday’s arguments centered on the federal Communications Decency Act, passed
in 1996 to give websites immunity from liability for content posted by users.
Judges and courts across the country have upheld the law in hundreds of cases,
including other lawsuits involving Richie’s website.

But Bertelsman has ruled four times against Richie’s arguments involving the
Communications Decency Act, finding that the very name of Richie’s website, the
way he manages it and the personal comments that he adds to many posts all
encourage offensive content.

Richie’s website allows users to submit posts — anonymously if they want —
about anyone from the girl next door to professional athletes and politicians,
often accusing them of promiscuity, criticizing their plastic surgery or picking
apart their looks. Richie screens each post, decides what goes up and often adds
his own commentary.

Most recently, Richie broke the news of Anthony Weiner’s latest round of
marital indiscretions.

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