An explosive legal battle between a former Cincinnati Bengals cheerleader and a gossip website could chill freedom of expression on the Internet, noted legal analyst Kendall Coffey says.
"This case could be a powerhouse depending on where it goes from here," Coffey told "The Steve Malzberg Show" on Newsmax TV.
"People post all kinds of outrageous and malicious things. In this case, as we know, this former cheerleader was pretty badly slimed."
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Ex-cheerleader Sarah Jones won a federal defamation lawsuit and a $338,000 settlement last year against TheDirty.com after commenters on the site made false claims about her sex life.
This week, TheDirty.com appealed the ruling, arguing that it is protected by a 1996 federal law.
Coffey, a founding member of the law firm Coffey Burlington PL in Miami, said websites depend on the Communications Decency Act, which gives broad immunity to websites.
"The Dirty.com's position was there's federally imposed immunity. What the court held in this case is, 'Hey, don't be so confident of that,"' Coffey said.
"If the Internet media publisher is in some sense involved in and encouraging the postings, approving the postings, more than simply being a neutral, a bulletin board, then there can be liability.
"And that can have an explosive impact on all the Internet publications out there, [and] there are gazillions."
Until now, the reasoning by websites has been that "pretty much it's anything goes as long as somebody else is posting the dirt,'' he added.
While there have been other cases involving alleged defamation on the Web, this one is distinctive, according to Coffey.
"The facts here are very strong in the sense of the defamatory allegation [being] … pretty outrageous," he said.
"The judge thought there were some distinctive facts that’s saying basically the Internet publisher was in a way, complicit, encouraged, and incited these kind of attacks.
"So, we've got to watch this one closely because this could really have a transformational effect on the way comments are being posted and the way Internet publishers are allowing or disallowing them.''
TheDirty.com, an Arizona-based business owned by Nik Richie, allows users to submit posts either by name or anonymously.
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