April/May/June 2012

Florida Appellate Courts Uphold Immunity for Website Operator, Approve City's Redaction of Polygraph Report

Holland & Knight Newsletter
Judith M. Mercier

A Florida appellate court has upheld a website operator’s “complete immunity” for defamatory postings on its website by a third-party user.

A disgruntled recipient of services from an addiction treatment company posted on “The Ripoff Report” site that the principal of the company was a convicted felon, the company’s facility was dangerous and it disbursed medication illegally. The company and its principal sought to enjoin Xcentric Ventures, LLC, the operator of The Ripoff Report, from allowing the false and defamatory posts to remain on the site. The Ripoff Report allows its users to file and document complaints about companies or individuals and does nothing to prevent users from posting false and defamatory statements.

The trial court deemed a portion of the posts defamatory per se and initially issued an injunction ? a take-down order prohibiting the third-party post from remaining on the website. The court attempted to distinguish between an action for damages, which the court recognized was barred, and an action for injunctive relief, which the court attempted to reason was not. The court dismissed the website operator from the lawsuit and later essentially reversed its earlier order and dissolved the injunction.

On appeal, in Giordano v. Romeo, Florida’s Third District Court of Appeal upheld the dismissal and dissolution of the injunction finding that the website “enjoys complete immunity” under the Communications Decency Act. Although appalled at Xcentric’s business practices, the Third District acknowledged that it was bound to follow the clear law under Section 230 of the Act, which bars any action against a service provider arising out of information posted by a third-party user.

Another appellate court in Florida found that a city had complied with the state’s Public Records Act in redacting the questions and answers from a pre-employment polygraph report for a law enforcement candidate. In Rush v. High Springs, Florida, Robin Rush had filed several public records requests with the city of High Springs first seeking only the “results” section and then the “comments and findings” of the report for a particular candidate. In responding, the city redacted the questions and answers before producing the report, which indicated the results were “inconclusive.”

Rush sued the city for violation of Florida’s Public Records Act, Section 119.071(1)(a), Fla. Stat. The trial court rejected Rush’s claim and granted summary judgment to the city based on the public records exemption which provides that “examination questions and answer sheets of examinations administered by a governmental agency for the purpose of licensure, certification, or employment are exempt.”

Florida’s First District Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court and found that this instance provided a “a clear example” of the application of the exemption. The First District rejected Rush’s argument that the exemption did not apply to examinations of a candidate’s mental state or character traits.

Related Insights