Free Speech Wins: A Massachusetts Federal District Court Dismisses Defamation Lawsuit Against TechDirt
Defamation law may no longer be used to silence unliked speech. At least, that is what a federal court in Massachusetts ruled last week. Shiva Ayyadurai sued a website known as TechDirt, its founder Michael Masnick and one of its reporters Leigh Beadon for defamation and infliction of emotional distress.
At the heart of Mr. Ayyadurai’s claim was a series of articles Mr. Masnick authored and posted on TechDirt. Mr. Ayyadurai claims to be the “inventor of email.” The articles called out Mr. Ayyadurai on this claim, provided significant evidence to the contrary—that the invention of email both as a concept and technology predated Mr. Ayyadurai’s copyright on the terms and software code—and explained the difference between a copyright and a patent.
Techdirt and Mr. Masnick asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit. While there were several grounds for requesting dismissal, TechDirt and Mr. Masnick saw the lawsuit as an effort to stifle speech. Mr. Ayyadurai made a claim, TechDirt provided arguments and evidence countering the claim, and rather than engage TechDirt and Mr. Masnick on the substance, Mr. Ayyadurai filed suit hoping to force TechDirt out of business through the legal process or judgment.
The court agreed with TechDirt and Mr. Masnick on two of the three grounds for dismissal. According to the court, the articles probably did not defame Mr. Ayyadurai, as most of the articles’ claims included links to the factual basis for various claims, many of the words chosen could be interpreted as opinion or hyperbole, and Mr. Ayyadurai could not establish the necessary “actual malice” required when the plaintiff is a public figure.
TechDirt republished comments its readers made. One of the articles Mr. Ayyadurai referenced in his complaint included comments made about him and his claims. The court properly applied Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which provides immunities to websites for content created by users, and dismissed the claims against the article’s author.
The one argument the court rejected was TechDirt’s and Mr. Masnick’s claim that California’s Anti-SLAPP statute should apply to the lawsuit. The court seems to have erred, applying the wrong standard to the request. Most federal appellate courts that have had the opportunity to decide what state’s law should apply in a defamation case have ruled that the speaker’s state laws take precedence. Regardless, as noted by Mr. Masnick in his blog announcing the decision, the court’s decision “ reinforces the argument we’ve been making for years: we need stronger anti-SLAPP laws in many states (including Massachusetts) and, even more importantly, we need a strong federal anti-SLAPP law to protect against frivolous lawsuits designed to silence protected speech.”
Defamation law should not provide individuals, whether public or private figures, with the opportunity to silence speech unfavorable to them. The purpose of defamation as a civil action is to provide an opportunity for those whose character damaged by others who have spread lies to sue those who originated, or improperly published, the lies. The Massachusetts federal district court made the correct decision protecting TechDirt’s and Mr. Masnick’s right both to speak freely and to publish information critical of a public figure.
Note: The American Legislative Exchange Council joined as a host for a fundraiser for ISupportJournalism.com, TechDirt’s and Michael Masnick’s legal defense fund earlier this year.