(AP) A New Jersey judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the operator of a Web site that lets visitors anonymously criticize their town’s public officials.
In a case closely watched by free-speech advocates, Superior Court Judge Mark M. Russello ruled that Stephen Moldow should not be held liable for allowing the sometimes-crude accusations on the “Eye on Emerson” Web site.
Russello also killed a subpoena seeking the identities of 60 anonymous posters, saying the plaintiffs failed to specify how their postings might be libelous. He also questioned whether the posters were properly notified of the legal proceedings.
The 60 anonymous “John and Jane Does” remain as defendants.
In dismissing Moldow as a defendant, Russello cited the importance of allowing free discussion about politics. He wrote that if Web site operators “face the prospect of a lawsuit from any person who is criticized in that forum … then this would indeed discourage the creation of Web sites.”
Russello said federal law places responsibility for online speech on the speakers, not on Web site operators and Internet service providers.
The lawsuit was filed in July by four Republicans in Emerson: Borough Councilwoman Gina Calogero; her husband, Lawrence Campagna, who is the local GOP chairman; Councilman Vincent Donato; and former council candidate Eric Obernauer.
“The Web site has brought embarrassment to Emerson, and Moldow has the power to clean it up but chooses not to do so,” Calogero said.
The court ruling was made Dec. 21 and released Wednesday. Jack Darakjy, the attorney representing the plaintiffs, promised an appeal.
The town officials sought damages, claiming defamation, harassment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. They argued that free-speech protections do not apply to slander or libel.
Some anonymous and unsubstantiated messages in the site’s chat room accused public officials of extramarital affairs, shady business dealings, and urinating in a swimming pool. One user posted the name and phone number of a council member’s employer, urging residents to call.
The officials had subpoenaed the Internet hosting company, Vantage Net Inc. of Minnesota, seeking the names of the posters. Although Russello quashed the subpoena, he left room for the plaintiffs to issue a narrower one that addresses his objections.