Single Publication Rule

Courts are increasingly applying the single publication rule to online publications. See more at When Defamation Goes Online.

New York is one of the few states that first applied the single publication rule to Internet publications. In Firth v. The State of New York, the Court of Claims concluded “while the act of making the document available constitutes a publication, in the absence of some alteration or change in form its continued availability on the Internet does not constitute a republication acting to begin the Statute of Limitations anew each day.”

In that case, the plaintiff argued that each day the information at issue was available on the Internet, it should constitute a new publication.  The court held that rule would “implicate an even greater potential for endless retriggering of the statute of limitations, multiplicity of suits and harassment of defendants.”

The court decision in Churchill v State of New Jersey, Commission of Investigation’s opinions echoed the decision in Firth.

“We affirm, and hold that the Internet publication of a document, where that document remains unchanged after its original posting, is subject to a one-year statute of limitations that runs from the date of publication of the alleged libel or slander.”

The court also “reject plaintiffs’ contention that updates to the SCI’s website constituted republications of the report” because “the updates were merely technical changes to the website,” and “they altered the means by which website visitors could access the report, but they in no way altered the substance or form of the report.”

In Emory M. Davis, et al. v. Frank Mitan, the court held that “the mere act of editing a website to add unrelated content does not constitute republication of unrelated defamatory material that is posted on the same website.” However, “where substantive material is added to a website, and that material is related to defamatory material that is already posted, a republication has occurred.”

Sometimes though, when the information at issue is not widely distribute in public, the single publication rule would not be applied. In Greg Swafford, M.D. v. Memphis Individual Practice Association, et al., “each dissemination of the allegedly defamatory information by the Data Bank gives rise to a separate cause of action” because only a select audience can access the information at issue.

“Unlike the mass publication of a book, magazine, or television commercial, it is unlikely that more than a handful of individuals or entities would gain access to information stored in the data base. Unlike Applewhite, the information stored in the Data Bank is not within the domain of the “contemporary publishing world.” Applewhite, 495 S.W.2d at 194. In addition, the health care entities in this case, like the entities accessing credit information, requested information from the Data Bank on separate and distinct occasions. Therefore, there is no “aggregate publication” as contemplated in cases applying the single publication rule. While information in the Data Bank may be accessed by several entities, the justification for the single publication rule, a vast multiplicity of lawsuits resulting from a mass publication, is simply not present here.”

As for posting links to allegedly defamatory statements, some courts rule that does not constitute a republication of defamatory speech or trigger the republication rule. See Sundance Image Technology Inc., et al. v Cone Editions Press Ltd., et al.

From the cases above, we can see there is great debate over what consists a republication. Media lawyers believe that what consists of republication will “undoubtedly be a major issue in the coming years.” To learn more about how scholars and media lawyers’ opinions of the application of single publication rule to cyber world, see When Defamation Goes Online.

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