Call it the next round in the battle between parents of teenagers and MySpace.com, the 21st century global hangout where minors, if they’re not careful or supervised, can find themselves mingling with adults and courting trouble.
The latest round could start next week in New Orleans when lawyers for a Texas minor who alleged she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old she met on MySpace.com are expected to file new appeals in their case against the social network.
Can lawyers succeed in holding MySpace.com more accountable for the safety of minors who use the site, or will judges decide protection is a parent’s duty alone?
In this case, lawyers for the minor might have their work cut out for them. A judge has already dismissed the girl’s earlier lawsuit, which alleged that MySpace and its corporate parent should have done more to police its members and help prevent the assault.
In dismissing the suit last month, a judge in Austin, Texas, cited a provision in the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (CDA), which holds that, as an “interactive computer service,” News Corp. and its property MySpace were not liable for the postings to the site.
The minor and her attacker may have only met because they communicated on MySpace, but it wasn’t MySpace’s responsibility to halt those communications before they led to the minor’s sexual assault, U.S. District Court Judge Sam Sparks ruled. “If anyone had a duty to protect Julie Doe, it was her parents, not MySpace,” he wrote in his ruling.
But the suit was dismissed with prejudice, leaving the door open for an appeal.
“We don’t believe the Communications Decency Act applies to a case like this,” said Adam Loewy of law firm Barry & Loewy, which is representing the minor.
He argued that the CDA applies primarily to defamation cases, such as when an owner of a Web site is sued over defamatory material published on the site. He said Judge Sparks erred in his interpretation of the CDA and that it does not limit MySpace’s liability for torts, or wrongful acts of members on its site.
“We are confident that [an] appellate court will agree,” Loewy told internetnews.com.
But Robert Corn-Revere, who provided legal counsel in litigation and regulatory proceedings with cases involving the Communications Decency Act, isn’t so sure about Loewy’s argument.
Judge Sparks’ ruling, in his view, is in the “mainstream” of decisions interpreting section 230 of the CDA, which outlines some measure of immunity for online service providers regarding torts committed by its users. It was adopted to give those providers broad immunity from content posted by third parties.
“Judge Sparks simply applied settled cases,” said Corn-Revere, a partner at Davis Wright Tremaine.
But Loewy is undeterred, and also plans to re-file a parallel suit against MySpace in the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit located in San Francisco. That suit, also previously dismissed by Judge Sparks, accuses MySpace of fraud against the minor. But Loewy feels a court near Silicon Valley, which he says has handled more Internet-related cases, will be more prepared to rule in his client’s favor.