Judge: Statute of Limitations for Libel Suits Applies to Web

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A one-year statute of limitations for bringing libel lawsuits in Texas also applies to articles posted on the Internet, a federal judge has ruled.

The ruling by U.S. District Judge David Godbey is being hailed as an important decision that gives online media the same protections as traditional print and broadcast organizations.

Godbey ruled Monday that the one-year clock begins ticking when an article first appears on the Internet and ends a year later, even if the article in question remains available for reading on the Internet.

A lawyer for Belo Corp., a defendant in the case, praised the decision as a critical step for online media.

“The ruling is important because it allows Internet publishers – not limited to newspapers – to engage in the free exchange of ideas without being exposed to defamation claims based on articles viewable in the present but first posted to the Internet years earlier,” said Russell Coleman, a Belo lawyer.

In dismissing the suit against The Dallas Morning News, personal finance columnist Scott Burns and parent company Belo Corp., Godbey wrote that he “sees no rational reason for distinguishing between the Internet and other forms of traditional mass media.”

The case against the newspaper began when Nationwide Bi-Weekly Administration Inc., an Ohio-based company specializing in mortgage payment services, claimed that a Burns column was inaccurate. Burns and The Dallas Morning News have repeatedly defended the column’s accuracy.

Godbey’s ruling didn’t address the column, but focused on the one-year statute. Nationwide filed its suit within the proper period but failed to properly notify the defendants in time, Godbey ruled.

Nationwide is considering an appeal. Its attorney said the one-year statue doesn’t take into account how Internet search engines can make an article written several years ago easily available today.

“It’s not sitting in a library – it’s staying on the Internet,” said Barbara Bison Jacobson, Nationwide’s lawyer. “How do we as a society deal with that?”

It is second time a federal judge recently determined that the Texas libel limits also apply to Internet-based media.

U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks in Austin came to a similar conclusion earlier this year when he dismissed a libel suit by a man who claimed he was defamed by an online article posted three years ago.

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