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Speech / First Amendment Law

Cases: Zeran v. America On-Line, Inc.
(Actual Text)
Unlike in Reno, in Zeran v. America On-Line, Inc., the CDA emerged as a shield protecting interactive computer service providers like AOL with immunity for state law distributor liability claims alleging that a provider was liable for defamatory messages placed on its service by a third party. The United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia held that the federal CDA preempted (i.e., forbade under these circumstances) the plaintiff's state law claims pursuant to the Supremacy Clause, which essentially makes federal law superior to state law where they conflict.

The court found that the state law in question directly conflicted with federal law in two ways. First, the state law treated AOL as the publisher or speaker of the information posted by a third party whereas the CDA specifically provided that 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. Second, the court held that distributor liability created disincentives for the development and use of blocking and filtering technologies that empower parents to restrict their children's access to certain on-line material, a result at cross-purposes with the CDA.

More specifically, under prior case law, a provider like AOL would expose itself to liability for defamatory content posted by third parties if it made attempts to screen or edit content on its system, but could avoid such exposure simply by doing nothing in this regard. In sum, Zeran establishes that the CDA provides important protections to Internet service providers with respect to the speech that appears on their services. The case also underscores that Congress did not specifically intend to entirely occupy, and thereby displace state law, in this field through the CDA; that is, states may still pass laws regulating the Internet provided that they do not conflict with the CDA.

(American Libraries Assn. v. Pataki, discussed below, determines that the Commerce Clause also limits what states can do with respect in Net regulation.)

Copyright SRBC 1998 up