Zeran v. Am. Online, Inc.

129 F.3d 327 (4th Cir. 1997)



47 U.S.C.S. § 230(c)(1) states in part that no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider. By its plain language, § 230 creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would place a computer service provider in a publisher's role. Thus, lawsuits seeking to hold a service provider liable for its exercise of a publisher's traditional editorial functions are barred. 


An unidentified person posted a message on an American Online Inc. (“AOL”) bulletin board advertising "Naughty Oklahoma T-Shirts." The posting described the sale of shirts featuring offensive and tasteless slogans related to the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. People interested in purchasing the shirts were instructed to call "Ken" at Zeran's home phone number in Seattle, Washington. As a result of this anonymously perpetrated prank, Zeran received a high volume of calls, comprised primarily of angry and derogatory messages, but also including death threats. Zeran could not change his phone number because he relied on its availability to the public in running his business out of his home. Later that day, Zeran called AOL and informed a company representative of his predicament. The employee assured Zeran that the posting would be removed from AOL's bulletin board but explained that as a matter of policy AOL would not post a retraction. The series of pranks played against Zeran continued, and consequently the death threats he received increased. Despite several pleas to AOL, the company refused to take down the posts, and so, Zeran instituted an action against the aforementioned company. Zeran argued that AOL unreasonably delayed in removing defamatory messages posted by an unidentified third party, refused to post retractions of those messages, and failed to screen for similar postings thereafter. The district court granted judgment for AOL on the grounds that the Communications Decency Act of 1996 ("CDA") - 47 U.S.C. § 230 - barred Zeran's claims. Zeran appealed, arguing that § 230 left intact liability for interactive computer service providers who possess notice of defamatory material posted through their services. He also contended that § 230 does not apply to the present case because his claims arise from AOL's alleged negligence prior to the CDA's enactment.


Does Section 230 of Communications Decency Act of 1996 bar Zeran’s claims against AOL?




The Court held that Section 230 of Communications Decency Act of 1996 plainly immunizes computer service providers like AOL from liability for information that originates with third parties. Furthermore, the Court opined that Congress clearly expressed its intent that § 230 apply to lawsuits, like Zeran's, instituted after the CDA's enactment. 

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