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Bad Words and Good Samaritans: Defamatory Speech in Cyberspace
Unformatted Document Text:  7 second provision, the so called “Good Samaritan” clause, which specifically exempts ISPs from liability for “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of material that the provider or users considers to be obscene, lewd . . . or otherwise objectionable” (Section 230 (c)(2)(A)). In Reno v. ACLU (1997), the United States Supreme Court considered the constitutionality of the CDA. This challenge was closely watched, as it was the Supreme Court’s first case on free speech in cyberspace. In a landmark decision which held that the indecency provisions of the CDA were unconstitutional, the majority ruled that as a “matter of constitutional tradition . . . we presume that government regulation of the content of speech is more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but unproven benefit of censorship” (844). The Court did not, it is important to add, consider Section 230, nor did the Court’s ruling on the indecency provisions otherwise affect this section of the law. While the Supreme Court has yet to hear a case involving Section 230, a variety of actions involving this provision have already been argued before the lower federal courts. Zeran v. America Online (1997) The first case to rule on Section 230 was Zeran v. America Online, a case ultimately decided by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The case began on April 25, 1995, when someone anonymously, and without the plaintiff Kenneth Zeran’s knowledge or authority, affixed Zeran’s name and telephone number to notices on AOL’s electronic bulletin board advertising “Naughty Oklahoma T-Shirts” and other items with slogans that glorified the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The slogans available

Authors: Herbeck, Dale.
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7
second provision, the so called “Good Samaritan” clause, which specifically exempts ISPs from
liability for “any action voluntarily taken in good faith to restrict access to or availability of
material that the provider or users considers to be obscene, lewd . . . or otherwise objectionable”
(Section 230 (c)(2)(A)).
In Reno v. ACLU (1997), the United States Supreme Court considered the
constitutionality of the CDA. This challenge was closely watched, as it was the Supreme Court’s
first case on free speech in cyberspace. In a landmark decision which held that the indecency
provisions of the CDA were unconstitutional, the majority ruled that as a “matter of
constitutional tradition . . . we presume that government regulation of the content of speech is
more likely to interfere with the free exchange of ideas than to encourage it. The interest in
encouraging freedom of expression in a democratic society outweighs any theoretical but
unproven benefit of censorship” (844). The Court did not, it is important to add, consider
Section 230, nor did the Court’s ruling on the indecency provisions otherwise affect this section
of the law. While the Supreme Court has yet to hear a case involving Section 230, a variety of
actions involving this provision have already been argued before the lower federal courts.
Zeran v. America Online (1997)
The first case to rule on Section 230 was Zeran v. America Online, a case ultimately
decided by the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit. The case began on April 25, 1995, when
someone anonymously, and without the plaintiff Kenneth Zeran’s knowledge or authority,
affixed Zeran’s name and telephone number to notices on AOL’s electronic bulletin board
advertising “Naughty Oklahoma T-Shirts” and other items with slogans that glorified the
bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. The slogans available


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