By Kirsten Murphy, Silha Fellow
On July 2, 2002, the New York Court of Appeals, the state's highest court, unanimously decided that Internet publications are subject to the single publication rule, so that each subsequent viewing of an Internet site is not considered to be a republication. The decision, Firth v. State, 2002 N.Y. LEXIS 1901, upheld a Court of Claims decision to grant summary judgment to the State of New York, denying plaintiff George Firth's defamation claim.
The case began when George Firth, a law enforcement official with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation, was harshly criticized by the state Inspector General. On December 16, 1996, the Inspector General published on its Web site a report entitled "The Best Bang for Their Buck," in which Firth's management style and weapons procurements were criticized. Firth was suspended from his employment with the State and later resigned.
Firth sued for defamation in the New York Court of Claims against the State of New York on March 18, 1998, over a year after the initial publication of the report. He sought a total of $10 million dollars in damages. The Court concluded that the claim was barred by the one-year statute of limitations, rejecting Firth's argument that the ongoing availability of the report on the Inspector General's Web site constituted a new publication.
Judge Howard Levine, writing for the Court of Appeals, held that the lower court had correctly barred Firth's claim as untimely under the statute of limitations. Applying traditional defamation principles to the Internet, the court concluded that the single publication rule applied to the Inspector General Web site. The rule states that although a publication may continue to circulate and be accessible to the public, the date of publication is considered to be the date of initial publication, which is the date from which the statute of limitations begins to toll.
The court considered the policy implications of adopting Firth's multiple publications rule, where continued access to Web sites would constitute republication. These include harassment of web publishers and the burden on the judiciary. Adding to these considerations, the court said, are the unique advantages of the rapidly changing Internet as a communications tool. "A multiple publication rule would implicate an even greater potential for endless retriggering of the statute of limitations, multiplicity of suits and harassment of defendants. Inevitably, there would be a serious inhibitory effect on the open, pervasive dissemination of information and ideas over the Internet, which is, of course, its greatest beneficial promise."
The Court of Appeals also rejected Firth's claim that a modification of the Web site, which was not directly related to the alleged defamation material, constitutes republication.