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Firth v. State of New York

    Brief Fact Summary. George Firth (Plaintiff) sued Defendant for defamation for material posted on an Internet site more than a year after it was posted. The lower court dismissed the suit on the ground that the claim was time-barred under the one-year statute of limitations for defamation.

    Synopsis of Rule of Law. The single publication rule is applicable to material posted on the Internet.

    Facts. Plaintiff was formerly employed by the Department of Environmental Conservation. At a press conference held on December 16, 1996, the Office of the State Inspector General issued a report entitled “The Best Bang for Their Buck,” which was critical of Plaintiff’s managerial style and procurement of weapons. On the same day, the State Education Department posted an executive summary with links to the full text of the report on its Government Locator Internet site. On March 18, 1998, more than one year after the report was first released and posted on the Internet, Plaintiff filed a claim against the State (Defendant) alleging that the report defamed him. Defendant moved to dismiss on the ground that the claim was time-barred under the one-year statute of limitations for defamation. The Court of Claims granted Defendant’s Summary Judgment Motion. The court rejected Plaintiff’s argument that the ongoing availability of the report via the Internet constituted a continuing wrong or
    new publication. The Appellate Division affirmed. Plaintiff appealed.

    Issue. Should the single publication rule be applied to material posted on Internet sites?

    Held. Yes. Judgment affirmed.
    * The single publication rule holds that the publication of a defamatory statement in a single issue of a newspaper, or a single issue of a magazine, although such publication consists of thousands of copies widely distributed, is, in legal effect, one publication which gives rise to one cause of action and that the applicable statute of limitations runs from the date of that publication.
    * Under the early common law each communication of a defamatory statement to a third person constituted a separate publication, which gave rise to a new cause of action. Applying the multiple publication rule to a communication distributed via mass media would permit a multiplicity of actions, leading to potential harassment and excessive liability, and draining of judicial resources. Further, the single publication rule actually reduces the possibility of hardship to plaintiffs by allowing the collection of all damages in one case commenced in a single jurisdiction.
    * Communications accessible over a public Internet site resemble those contained in traditional mass media, only on a far grander scale. Communications posted on websites may be viewed by thousands, if not millions, over an expansive geographic area for an indefinite period of time. Thus, a multiple publication rule would implicate an even greater potential for endless re-triggering of the statute of limitations, multiplicity of suits and harassment of defendants.
    * Republication, re-triggering the period of limitations, occurs upon a separate aggregate publication from the original, on a different occasion, which is not merely “a delayed circulation of the original edition.” The justification for this exception to the single publication rule is that the subsequent publication is intended to and actually reaches a new audience. The mere addition of unrelated information to an Internet site cannot be equated with the repetition of defamatory matter in a separately published edition of a book or newspaper.

    Discussion. In order to maintain a cause of action for libel, the defamatory language must be published or republished within the applicable statute of limitations. In this case, the Court held that mere changes to a website were not enough to constitute republication.


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