Zeran v. America Online

Significance: This case immunized Internet providers from claims based on information posted by its clients.
Kenneth Zeran was defamed by an unknown AOL subscriber who posted an advertisement on an AOL bulletin board saying Zeran was selling joke memorabilia of the Oklahoma City bombing. The advertisement included Zeran’s first name and home telephone number. The first posting was made on April 25, 1995 by Ken ZZ03 without Zeran’s authority. Consequently, Zeran was inundated with complaints and death threats.

As a matter of policy, AOL removed the posting. The same day the first posting was removed, a new one appeared under a modified identity, Ken ZZ033. Zeran called AOL again to request the company delete the notice and take measures to block further use of his name and phone number. The AOL operator assured him that they were deleting the notice and terminating the account.

A local Oklahoma City radio station broadcaster read excerpts from the advertisement on the air and encouraged listeners to call Zeran to express their disgust and disapproval. The calls became so threatening and abusive that local police had to keep Zeran’s house under protective surveillance. Although the hoax was exposed in an Oklahoma City newspaper and the radio station broadcast an apology, the calls persisted.

Zeran filed suit in April 1996 against AOL in the US. District Court for the Western District of Oklahoma. Zeran claimed AOL did not respond adequately to the notices on its bulletin board after being alerted to their malicious and fraudulent nature. In response, AOL filed a motion to dismiss the case on grounds of failure to state a claim and had the case transferred to another court. After being denied the motion to dismiss the case for failure of stating a claim, AOL sought a dismissal of the claim on the basis of 47 USC 230, which states that, “no provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as a publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”

The District Court and the Court of Appeals ruled that 47 U.S.C. 230 immunizes AOL and other Internet providers from claims based on material posted by its clients.