In what was hailed as a victory for free speech on the Internet, a US appeals court ruled on Tuesday that a person who distributes another's e-mail cannot be sued for libel based on its content.
The case involved a handyman, Robert Smith, who heard one of his clients say she was the granddaughter of one of "Adolf Hitler's right-hand men." After he overheard Ellen Batzel claim to be related to Gestapo chief Heinrich Himmler, he came to believe that the paintings in her home were stolen.
Smith then wrote an e-mail to Ton Cremers at the Museum Security Network site in Amsterdam. "I believe these paintings were looted during the Second World War and are the rightful legacy of the Jewish people," he wrote.
After making some minor changes, Cremers included the e-mail in a mailing to hundreds of museum security officials. Smith later said he did not want the e-mail sent.
Batzel sued Smith and the Netherlands Museum Association for defamation, saying she was not a Nazi descendant and did not inherit any art.
In a complex decision, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, the nation's largest appeals court, cited a decision by the US Congress to immunize liability for defamation to providers and users of the Internet when the content is provided by someone else.
"Because Cremers did no more than select and make minor alterations to Smith's e-mail, Cremers cannot be considered the content provider of Smith's e-mail," a three-judge panel ruled.
"We therefore hold that a service provider or user is immune from liability... when a third person or entity that created or developed the information in question furnished it to the provider or user under circumstances in which a reasonable person in the position of the service provider would conclude that the information was provided for publication on the Internet."
The consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, which had urged the court to allow people to operate computer bulletin boards and mailing lists without liability for their content, hailed the decision as "a major victory for free speech on the Internet."