NC Politician Fights Defamatory Internet Content With New Bill

February 12, 2009 10:28 AM
by Cara McDonough
State Sen. Steve Goss says slanderous comments posted online can irreparably damage a reputation, but critics say his bill could restrict First Amendment rights.

Bill Would Protect Victims of Internet Slander

North Carolina Senate Bill 46, sponsored by Goss, would give Web sites 10 days to correct any “slanderous” blog posts, comments or public e-mails and post an apology.

Goss, a Democrat, says the bill will promote a greater sense of responsibility on the Web. “It’s about the speed of information and how quickly a person can be irreparably harmed,” he said, according to North Carolina news site WRAL.

He said that the original version of his bill called for possible criminal penalties, but that he plans to change the bill to allow victims to pursue civil suits against those who posted the offensive content.

WRAL reports that Duke University freshman Mary Hannah Ellis had a firsthand experience with the kind of Internet abuse Goss is talking about when untrue things were written about her on college gossip site Juicy Campus. The site shut down last week citing economic troubles.

“It’s despicable, honestly,” Ellis said.

But Stuart Benjamin, a Duke law professor, said the bill won’t fly, citing a federal statute that protects Web sites from liability from what people post on them. Figuring out the identity of anonymous posters would prove difficult as well, because court orders would be required.

The bill was referred to a Senate committee on Feb. 4.

Opinion: Critics speak out

Goss may not find much support, as he seems to be one of the few people who thinks the bill is a good idea.

Progressive blog BlueNC made fun of the senator in its post on the bill, referencing Goss' comment that he believes “these blogs are getting out of control. James Protzman wrote: “These blogs? Just exactly which of 'these blogs' is the Democratic Senator in Raleigh talking about? I’d be surprised to learn that Mr. Goss has ever even visited a blog.”

And the North Carolina Civitas Institute went as far as to call SB 46 the “Bad Bill of the Week.” Francis DeLuca wrote on the group’s Web site that right-wing and left-wing groups have denounced Goss’ bill universally.

DeLuca also says the bill in its original form, which includes criminal penalties, could lead to an arrest for nearly anything. “So, for example, I hopped on Facebook and posted a comment that John Doe likes to eat broccoli, when in fact, Doe has a severe aversion to broccoli. That means, under this filed bill, I could be arrested and charged with a class 2 misdemeanor,” he writes.

Related Topic: “Internet Comments Play Starring Role in Vytorin Lawsuit”

Schering-Plough Corp. and Merck & Co., which together produce the cholesterol drug Vytorin, are being sued by investors who say the drug manufacturers didn't disclose test results showing the drug to be no better than an older, less expensive drug.

Among evidence featured in the lawsuit are postings from CafePharma, a Web site used by pharmaceutical sales reps. The postings allude to the companies’ knowledge of the tests.

 But Merck and Schering Plough have asked U.S. District Judge Dennis Cavanaugh to disallow the comments, saying that “CafePharma is, literally, the cyberspace equivalent of scrawls left on a men’s room wall.” The case has added fuel to an already smoldering debate regarding the Internet’s role in the courtroom, as several recent lawsuits have centered on comments made online.

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