Liable: Zeran vs. AOL (1998)

24 11 2010

Zeran vs. AOL refers to the 1997-98 legal battle between Seattle artist Ken Zeran and the $4million media conglomerate, America Online.

Zeran’s struggle began in April of 1995, six days after Timothy McVeigh bombed the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City.  In an AOL “Michigan Military Movement” chat community, someone registered the username KenZZ03 and posted advertisements for insensitive paraphernalia.  After someone tipped off local Oklahoma City radio personality Mike Shannon, of KRXO FM, who told listeners to speak out against the sale. Ken Zeran recieved nearly 100 threatening phone calls.

Independent from the suit against AOL for negligence and failure “to respond adequately to the bogus notices on its bulletin board after being made aware of their malicious and fraudulent nature,” Zeran sued Diamond Broadcasting, owner of KRXO.
In a 2000 interview with Carl Kaplan of “The Skeptic Tank,” an online weekly law reveiw, Zeran said “If you went to an e-mail screen and saw an e-mail from someone you didn’t know — an anonymous e-mail — and the content was provocative and incendiary and pointed toward a particular person, would you publish that information in a newspaper? That’s the essence of this case.”
Robert Nelon, the defense attorney for KRXO, said in the same article that while it was impossible not to feel for Zeran, the person to be angry with, to hold responsible, is whomever posted the messages- not AOL for facilitating or KRXO for perpetuating.

The Supreme Court denied requests to hear the Zeran/AOL case, so the rulings of lower courts stand.
The first suit brought into question AOL’s nonaction and the validity of Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act– because the legislation went into effect in 1996, after the defamatory messages were posted online.

Citing Cubby vs. CompuServe (1991),  the Fourth Circuit Appeals Court found that AOL was to be considered a distributer and thereby an extension of the publisher- each protected by Section 230.

In the end, the Fourth Circuit Court found that none of Zeran’s arguments could stand up against the CDA, which  “creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make service providers liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service.”

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I am absolutely blown away that AOL was not held responsible! Nor KRXO FM!
I can understand that because the internet is essentially endless, AOL or any other host site could possibly hope to police every single avenue of activity… but you would think that once a complaintant came forward they would have helped.

To some degree I feel as though Mike Shannon should have fact checked the tip he received from a viewer.  I know that I would never just repeat or repost information that I had not looked into for myself. On the other hand, I can see the perspective that you wouldn’t hold a news anchor responsible for a statement, later deemed inaccurate, because it is the job of a writer to investigate and create the story.

It is terribly sad to think that Ken Zeran had no recourse for clearing his name.  I wonder why with so many lawsuits that the CDA hasn’t been reevaluated, because to this point I’m not sure it is protecting the right people.

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