For the last nine months, the popular technology blog Techdirt has been defending itself and the First Amendment in the US First Circuit Court. Yesterday, a federal judge dismissed the defamation lawsuit that had been brought against Techdirt founder Mike Masnick, parent company Floor64 and staff writer Leigh Beadon.
The libel case, filed by Massachusetts senatorial candidate Shiva Ayyadurai, claimed that Techdirt had published several articles defaming the politician by calling him a “fraud,” “liar,” and “charlatan,” among other things. The lawsuit was seeking $15 million in damages.
The articles in question were ones that criticized Ayyadurai for claiming to be the “inventor of email” and refuted his assertions with historical evidence. While the criticisms were accurate, they were also blunt and to the point as you would expect from a blog. A snippet from one of the articles sums up Techdirt’s stance on the issue succinctly.
“For almost five years now, we've been among those explaining why Shiva Ayyadurai's claim that he invented email is complete bullshit. It's not true. Not even remotely. [His program] was not the first. It was not the last. It was nothing special. Nothing about what Ayyadurrai did was new -- even if he came up with the ideas entirely on his own. Basically, every feature that he put in the application was previously discussed on open mailing lists.”
Masnick acknowledges that Ayyadurai owns a copyright on a messaging program called “EMAIL” that he wrote in 1978 but points out that copyright and patent are two separate things.
“Just because Microsoft has a copyright on 'Windows' it does not mean it 'invented' the concept of a windowed graphical user interface (because it did not),” Masnick points out.
Judge F. Dennis Saylor agreed, ruling that Shiva’s claims had no merit and that Techdirt’s statements were protected under the First Amendment because they were not "provably false,” which is a requirement in a defamation case. Furthermore, some of the statements in the complaint were attributed to readers who left comments on the articles and not the staff of Techdirt.
The First Circuit dismissed the case in full and denied Ayyadurai’s request to file an amended complaint, so the case is closed.
Masnick is relieved the fight is over and happy with the outcome. It was a battle worth fighting and he is glad to see it as a win for freedom of speech. However, Masnick did express that he was disappointed that the judge denied the motion to strike under California’s anti-SLAPP law.
“We're nevertheless disappointed that the judge chose not to apply California's anti-SLAPP law here,” he said. “However, that just reinforces the argument we've been making for years: we need stronger anti-SLAPP laws in many states (including Massachusetts) and, even more importantly, we need a strong federal anti-SLAPP law to protect against frivolous lawsuits designed to silence protected speech.”
Since the lawsuit was filed in Massachusetts, the judge had to apply that state’s anti-SLAPP legislation which is focused more on speech aimed at the government rather than California's more general application.
The whole ordeal was the motivation that prompted Masnick to start the Techdirt “Free Speech edition.” The special section of the site will be devoted to reporting on free speech issues as well as advocating for stronger anti-SLAPP legislation.
“You have not heard the last from us on the issue of the First Amendment, free speech, and anti-SLAPP laws – or how some try to use the court system to silence and bully critics.”