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Firth v. State of New York

    Brief Fact Summary. Firth was an employee of the state of New York, who sued when the state published a critical job performance review online.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. (1) Under the statute of limitation, the single publication rule can be invoked for alleged defamation posted online on a website.
    (2) Modifying a different part of the website which has no relation to the original content does not mean republication has occurred.

    Facts. Firth was formerly the Director of the Division of Law Enforcement in the Department of Environmental Conservation.  The State Department of Education posted online an executive summary of a report with links to the full text, prepared by the Office of the Inspector General. The report generally criticized the management style and weapon procurement methodology of Firth. After more than a year had passed, Firth filed against the State of New York on the ground of defamation. The court of claims dismissed the suit on the basis of the statute of limitation, denying his argument that since the report was continuously available on the internet, it was a continuing wrong, or acted as a new publication. The court of appeals affirmed the verdict, and Firth went in appeal.

    Issue. (1) Under the statute of limitation, does the single publication rule cover allegedly defamatory publications available on an internet website?
    (2) If it is applicable, does changing a different part of the website in a way which does not affect the original defamatory statement amount to republication?

    Held. (Levine, J.)
    (1) Yes. For the purpose of the statute of limitation, the single publication rule covers the allegedly defamatory publications on an internet website. The traditional rule was that despite the physical presence of thousands of copies of a newspaper which contained a defamatory statement, yet there could be only one cause for legal claim, which dated from the date of publication of the statement. In reference to a website, which can be altered at any time, and allows only its viewers to see a particular publication, each separate viewing does not amount to a new and separate publication, to which the statute of limitation applies. If this was not accepted, the stature of limitation would be endless in its allowed time period, or would take an unduly long time to expire, owing to the viewing of the message or posting on a website by millions (potentially) over a large geographic area over a non-specifiable period. The intent of the law, to prevent,completely and forever, any action from commencing, at any time after the furthest limit set by the limitation, would be thwarted by such an interpretation. Another adverse effect would be that a huge number of litigations would arise, leading not only to harassment but also to liability beyond the scope of the law’s intent, and exhausting the court system’s resources. These unintended effects would cause a restriction of information posting on the internet, and thus deprive it of one of its most desirable features.
    (2) No. Making an independent change in a different section of the website does not amount to republication. In this case, addition of a report of the Inspector General on the DMV to the Education Department’s website did not mean the report was republished within a year of the claim. In order to satisfy the statute, the republication must be directed at a separate or new set of recipients, and the publication itself must be separate, not a delayed circulation of the original one. Thus adding unrelated information to a website, without adding to the original allegedly defamatory content, does not equate to adding or repeating defamatory content in a separate printed edition of a book or newspaper. It is not reasonable with the evidence to conclude that the purpose of the addition was to ensure that the earlier defamation would reach a wider or new circle of recipients. The restriction of the internet would be harmful if the decision was made to view each addition of independent matter to a website as republication. The verdict is affirmed.

    Dissent. N/A

    Concurrence. N/A

    Discussion. This case follows the principles set out in the Secondary Restatement of Torts Section 577A.


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