Avoid Legal Liability by Avoiding Changes to Online User Comments

Firm News · June 9, 2010

Robert A. Bertsche led a discussion titled Internet and Media Law at the annual New England Newspaper and Press Association Convention held this past winter. The workshop was designed to help participants address and try to resolve Internet-related legal problems.

As newspapers put more of their content online, inviting reader comments and suggestions, there are an ever-increasing number of questions and issues surrounding liability. According to Rob, “The (federal) Communications Decency Act says you are not liable for comments on your site. That’s the law.”

Rob added “under no circumstances should moderators rewrite questionable comments – users’ comments should either be left intact, or taken down completely to avoid potentially changing the meaning of a comment, leading to liability. Once you edit it enough, it is no longer the third party’s content; it’s your content.”

One way to guarantee consistency in online policy is for editors to make their guidelines on moderation clear in the terms of service posted on their websites, so users know the rules. Bertsche said terms-of-service agreements are “more enforceable” if written in simple language rather than legal jargon.

If editors choose to moderate, they need to ensure that offensive content does not slip through, Bertsche noted.