By: Lawrence Savell
Judge Says Libel Statute Of Limitations Still Applies
In a decision that may provide some comfort to Internet publishers, the
New York Court of Claims ruled this month that the single publication
rule applies to allegedly defamatory publications on the Internet.
The court said the posting of an article is a single event starting the
running of the applicable statute of limitations, and not a continuous
publication that might start it running anew each day it remains posted
online. The ruling rejects the claim by a libel plaintiff that the
item’s ongoing presence on the Web created a virtually perpetual
statute of limitations, which might allow a lawsuit to be brought at
The ruling, one of the first in the nation and apparently the first in
New York to address this issue, came in a somewhat unlikely context.
Firth v. State of New York was a libel action brought by a former
employee of the New York Department of Environmental Conservation
regarding a report issued by the Inspector General which was thereafter
republished on the Internet.
Under New York civil procedural rules, a lawsuit for libel must be
filed within one year after the material is published. The report in
this case was published on Dec. 16, 1996, and posted on the Internet
that same day. However, the plaintiff did not file the action until
March 18, 1998, more than a year after the publication and posting.
In an attempt to prevent his suit from being tossed out for being too
late under the statute, the plaintiff argued, among other things, that
each day the report was available on the Internet constituted a new
publication triggering a new accrual date for his libel claim. The
court disagreed, noting that, in New York, the single publication rule
provides that the publication of a statement in a single issue of a
newspaper or other periodical is, in legal effect, one publication
which gives rise to one cause of action. Under that rule, the
applicable statute of limitations runs from the date of that
By contrast, a ‘republication’ will occur only if and when the article
is placed in a new form (such as a paperback book as opposed to a
hardcover) or edited in a different manner. A republication will
normally re-start the running of the statute of limitations.
The plaintiff cited a somewhat-obscure 1998 decision by the Court of
Appeals of Tennessee, which held that a new cause of action arose for
statute of limitations purposes each time defamatory information
maintained on an online database was accessed. The New York court
declined to follow that precedent, and instead was guided by a 1999
decision by the New York Court of Appeals in a case involving libel
claims brought against Internet service provider Prodigy Services Co.
Although the Prodigy case involved issues different from the Firth
case, it did provide guidance suggesting that the actions of Internet
entities should be assessed through established legal doctrines and
guidelines applied to traditional businesses.
The decision is a victory for Internet publishers, allowing them the
comfort of knowing that while the posting of an item on the Internet
may start the running of the statute of limitations, its ongoing
presence there will not re-start the period running anew each day.
Thus, the publishers’ potential liability regarding that item is of
However, this is the ruling of only a single court, which could be
appealed and which is not binding on other courts, although they may
look to it for guidance. (Indeed, a similar case involving The New York
Times is reportedly pending before the U.S. District Court for the
Southern District of New York.) Moreover, publishers should bear in
mind that, should the online item be significantly edited or otherwise
changed following its initial posting, or published in another medium,
such actions may constitute a republication starting the limitations
period running again.
Lawrence Savell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is
a media law attorney in the New York office of Chadbourne & Parke LLP.
(c) Copyright 2000, Editor & Publisher