A perennial New York political candidate recently lost a lawsuit brought against two websites alleging that they interfered with his "Master Election Plan." William Murawski claimed that Ask.com and Yahoo! had defamed him and violated his right to free speech through their actions, but a judge for the District Court for the Southern District of New York thought otherwise.
Murawski brought his suit against a number of defendants - including the aforementioned websites, the governor of New York and the state's election board - after he failed to get his name on the 2006 gubernatorial ballot. In addition to the charges against the websites, Murawski alleged that New York election law violated his due process rights and his protections under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
With respect to the charges levied against the websites, Murawski first claimed that Yahoo! had violated his right to free speech by blocking his ability to send emails to Yahoo! groups to which the plaintiff belonged during his 2006 campaign.
Judge Richard Holwell granted Yahoo!'s 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss after determining that, as a private company, Yahoo! was not subject to constitutional free speech guarantees. Murawski went on to argue that Yahoo! was a state actor subject to constitutional requirements, a contention which the judge summarily rejected.
Murawski next argued that Ask.com had defamed him by including a political website in its Internet search results and formatting the result for the website in a libelous way. The political site in question listed Murawski's name directly underneath a listing for a member of the Communist Party. When conducting a search of plaintiff's name in Ask.com, the results included the word "communist," and since Ask.com (similar to most search engines) does not include line or paragraph breaks in its results, the word appeared on the same line as plaintiff's name.
The court rejected this argument as well, finding that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act shielded the search engine from any liability for its listing. Ask.com is an "interactive computer service" as the term is defined in the act, according to the judge, and the content displayed was provided by an external source. Therefore, Section 230 protects the website from defamation charges related to the search result.
Murawski also alleged that Ask.com broke a promise it made to remove the listing. The judge, however, held that Ask.com was under no obligation to remove the content since that decision fell within the traditional role of a publisher. As such, it was also subject to Section 230's broad immunity.
Murawski didn't lose every motion, however. One defendant's motion imposing sanctions on him for his frivolous, vexatious, or scurrilous lawsuit filings was denied. The judge felt that while Murawski's claims were "so completely without merit as to border on the vexatious" the plaintiff may not have been aware of the possibility of the imposition of sanctions and exercised their discretion to spare him.
And while Yahoo! is free to go; the State Board of Elections failed to respond to Murawski's sweeping indictments of their administration of public elections with enough detail for the court to dismiss all of his claims about the difficulties facing independent candidates. The court made reference to previous decisions supporting the State BOE's election requirements, but declined to rule on the issue. The judge instructed the State BOE to brief the issue and file a new motion to dismiss.