July 23, 2002
Single publication rule upheld

My dad sent me word about this recent decision by the NY State Appellate Court, in which the "single publication" provision of libel law was upheld.

"Single publication" means

"the publication of a defamatory statement in single issue of a newspaper, or a single issue of a magazine, although such publication consists of thousands of copies widely distributed, is, in legal effect, one publication which gives rise to one cause of action and that the applicable [s]tatute of [l]imitations runs from the date of that publication"

In the cited case, the court was asked to rule on a defamation lawsuit brought in 1998. The plaintiff, the former Director of the Division of Law Enforcement for the Department of Environmental Conservation, had in 1996 been the subject of a report by the state Inspector General which criticized his managerial style and procurement of weapons. An executive summary of this report, including links to the full text, was posted on the State Department of Education website on the same day.

In 1998, when the lawsuit was filed, the state moved to dismiss it on the grounds that the one-year statute of limitations had been passed. The plaintiff claimed that since the web site that linked to the report had been modified since then, that meant that the page which contained the defamatory statements had been republished, thus restarting the clock.

Instead, claimant maintains that because a Web site may be altered at any
time by its publisher or owner and because publications on the Internet are available only to those who seek them, each "hit" or viewing of the report should be considered a new publication that retriggers the statute of limitations.

The court ruled that since the original page had not been changed, it had not been republished. To allow otherwise would impose an impossible burden:

In Gregoire, we held that a publisher's sale from stock of a copy of a book containing libelous language did not constitute a new publication. We explained that if the multiple publication rule were applied to such a sale, "the [s]tatute of [l]imitation[s] would never expire so long as a copy of such book remained in stock and is made by the publisher the subject of a sale or inspection by the public. Such a rule would thwart the purpose of the Legislature to bar completely and forever all actions which, as to the time of their commencement, overpass the limitation there prescribed upon litigation"...

The policies impelling the original adoption of the single publication rule support its application to the posting of the Inspector General's report regarding claimant on the State's Web site...Communications posted on Web sites may be viewed by thousands, if not millions, over an expansive geographic area for an indefinite period of time. Thus, a multiple publication rule would implicate an
even greater potential for endless retriggering of the statute of limitations, multiplicity of suits and harassment of defendants. Inevitably, there would be a serious inhibitory effect on the open, pervasive dissemination of information and ideas over the Internet, which is, of course, its greatest beneficial promise.

The court similarly disagreed with the notion that a republication of an unrelated web page elsewhere on the same site triggered a republication of the defamatory page. It ruled that this was different from a subsequent republishing of a book that contained defamatory statements.

Dad thinks that the court got this right, and I agree. Web pages, as the court noted, change all the time. Adding something here shouldn't affect the publication status of something there, even if your publishing software decides to repost the whole site. Blogs in particular would never see the statute of limitations run out on them if the plaintiff's motion was held to be valid.

It's an interesting case, and the ruling is fairly short and easy to read, so check it out. Thanks, Dad!

Posted by Charles Kuffner on July 23, 2002 to Technology, science, and math

That was interesting! Thanks! I learn something new every day... :D

Posted by: cybertoad on July 23, 2002 2:50 PM