Zeran vs AOL Defamation Case | Maggie Miller | April 13, 2016


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Zeran vs AOL Defamation Case

by Maggie Miller Show/Hide

Breakdown of the Case

Six days after the Oklahoma City bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah building in 1995, the phone number of Kenneth Zeran, the plaintiff, was attached to a message advertising merchandise that glorified the bombing in various ways that was posted on America Online, or AOL. Zeran began to receive angry calls about the advertisement, which he did not post, and he contacted AOL to have the advertisement taken down, which it was. However, the advertisement was repeatedly reposted by an anonymous source, each time putting Zeran’s home phone number as the contact information for buying the merchandise advertised. Zeran eventually contacted the FBI, which had to place his house under surveillance for a short while due to the huge amount of calls and threats Zeran was receiving, which at the height of the issue went up to one call every two minutes. A few months later, Zeran filed suit against AOL.
In court, Zeran alleged that AOL had not acted fast enough to take down the messages, which were “fraudulent in nature” and which defamed him. AOL’s case hinged on the Communications Decency Act (CDA), specifically Section 230, which states that operators of internet services can’t be labeled as publishers of their content. However, the CDA went into law several months after the messages with Zeran’s phone number were published online, something the Lower Court had to debate allowing. Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of AOL, saying that the CDA would be allowed to be applied retroactively, and therefore ruled against Zeran’s defamation claim.
Zeran appealed the case to the Fourth Court, which again ruled against him, and then to the Supreme Court, which refused to hear his case.


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  1. 1 Show/Hide More Zeran vs AOL Primary Sources
    Original Creator: Maggie Miller

    Primary Source #1

    Full Transcript of the Court Proceedings in Appeal

    This document is the original court proceedings in Zeran vs. America Online Inc. during the appeal stage to the Fourth Circuit Court, in which the court upheld the ruling of the Lower Court. This was due to Congress’s intention, as outlined in the Communications Decency Act (CDA), that this act would apply to all court cases ruled on after the CDA was enacted, which this case was.

    In the beginning of the document, the opinion of the court is stated, and then the case is outlined in Section I of the document. In Section II, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act is discussed, and its potential repercussions to the case. The judge goes in depth on why Section 230, which gives immunity to internet service providers in cases in which something posted on their website by an anonymous user is deemed harmful, was added to the CDA in the first place. The judge is clearly in favor of Section 230, although both positives and negatives of the law are discussed. Section III is a lead-up to the decision in Section IV, and it is obvious that the Fourth Circuit Court will uphold the original ruling in favor of AOL, which is indeed does in Section IV. The link to the full transcript is here: https://www.eff.org/files/zeran-v-aol.pdf

  2. 2 Show/Hide More Zeran vs AOL Further Information
    Original Creator: Maggie Miller

    Internet Library of Law and Court Decisions: http://www.internetlibrary.com/cases/lib_case81.cfm

    This article goes in-depth on the case, particularly on the court case section, and offers a link to the full transcript of the court case.

    Digital Media Law Project: http://www.dmlp.org/threats/zeran-v-america-online

    This source is one based on a site similar to the H2O project, in that there is a summary of the case given, followed by related links and details. Strong source, and a gateway to others legitimate sources.

    Tech Law Journal: http://www.techlawjournal.com/courts/zeran/Default.htm

    This source, like the previous sources, gives an overview of Zeran vs. AOL, and breaks the case down into basic facts. This would make it easy for a member of the public to understand.

    Netlitigation: http://www.netlitigation.com/netlitigation/cases/zeran.htm

    This source addresses the broader idea of First Amendment rights, which Zeran vs. AOL falls under, and gives a rundown of the case in order to give an example of a First Amendment case. This article also mentions Blumenthal vs. Drudge, a later case that will also be discussed in this paper.

    Global Freedom of Expression: https://globalfreedomofexpression.columbia.edu/cases/zeran-v-america-online-inc/

    This source differs from the previous four in that it relates Zeran vs. AOL to worldwide trends on libel and defamation, and puts it in a global perspective to show how it would be judged elsewhere. This website in general is also a good resource for looking into the status of freedom of speech worldwide.


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April 13, 2016

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Maggie Miller

American University

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