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By: William Gildea
The Massachusetts Appeals Court recently decided a case that could have broad implications for online publishers facing defamation suits. The Massachusetts Appeals Court held that in an action for defamation founded on purported defamatory statements on a newspaper’s online website, a claimant may bring “one (and only one) cause of action for defamation against the publisher based on its publication of the defamatory statement.” Wolsfelt v. Gloucester Times, 98 Mass. App. Ct. 321, 322 (2020) (“Wolsfelt”). The Wolsfelt Court further held that the statute of limitations begins to accrue when the alleged defamatory statement is first posted on the website.
Plaintiff Robert Wolsfelt filed suit against the Gloucester Times for alleged defamatory articles arising out of two different incidents of domestic violence where Wolsfelt was arrested. The first domestic violence incident resulted in the Gloucester Times publishing an article on its website titled “Gloucester Police/Fire: City man charged in domestic assault” which was subsequently updated a few days after a continuance was granted in Wolsfelt’s criminal court case. Nearly four months later, Wolsfelt was involved in a second domestic violence incident that resulted in the Gloucester Times publishing an article online titled “Gloucester Police/Fire: Lanesville man charged in domestic assault[.]” The second article was later updated after to reflect another continuance without a finding in Wolsfelt’s criminal case. Wolsfelt did not learn about the articles until after the second article was published and he was applying for a new job. Over two years later, Wolsfelt brought suit against Gloucester Times for defamation and also sought injunctive relief through the newspaper deleting the articles from the website.
The Wolsfelt Court first addressed the statute of limitations challenge by applying the general rule in Massachusetts that “[I]n defamation cases, the general rule is that the cause of action accrues, and the statute of limitations begins to run, on publication of the defamatory statement. A statement is published when it is communicated to a third party.” Wolsfelt, 98 Mass. App. Ct. at 324. The Court explored the history of the single publication rule, (“[u]nder the rule, the publication of a defamatory statement in this aggregate manner is, in legal effect, one publication, although such publication is received by multiple third parties at the same time or consists of many copies widely distributed”) and looked to other jurisdiction’s application of the rule with online postings. Id. at 325.
The Wolsfelt Court found that since Wolsfelt filed his complaint more than three years after the first article was published, he then had the burden to establish facts to take him out of the limitation period. Wolsfelt’s argument that a new communication occurred every time the article was accessed online was found unavailing by the Appeals Court. The Wolsfelt Court stated “[p]ermitting a separate cause of action for each ‘hit’ or viewing of defamatory statement by a third party on the Internet ‘would implicate an even greater potential for endless retriggering of the statute of limitations, multiplicity of suits and harassment of defendants.’” Wolsfelt, 98 Mass. App. Ct. at 325., (internal citations omitted). Applying the single publication rule, the Court extended the rule to “articles posted to an online media’s publicly available website.” Id. at 327.
Online publishers in Massachusetts should find comfort in the Wolsfelt decision. The statute of limitations for a purported defamatory statement posted in an online newspaper will start running on the date of publication. Therefore, the Wolsfelt decision will cut down on duplicative litigation.
If you have questions or would like more information, please contact William Gildea at [email protected].