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The DMLP Asks the Sixth Circuit to Safeguard Crowdsourced Research and Data-based Journalism

The Digital Media Law Project (formerly the Citizen Media Law Project), assisted by Harvard Law School’s Cyberlaw Clinic, has asked the Sixth Circuit to make clear that website operators that aggregate citizen reports and rely on that data to draw conclusions cannot be liable for defamation based on those conclusions.

The DMLP submitted an amicus curiae brief (pdf) last week to the Sixth Circuit in the case of Seaton v. TripAdvisor, LLC. The case concerns TripAdvisor’s 2011 “Dirtiest Hotels in America” list. The list, which was based on travelers’ ratings for cleanliness on TripAdvisor, named the Grand Resort Hotel & Convention Center in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee the dirtiest hotel in America. Kenneth Seaton, the hotel’s owner, subsequently filed a claim for defamation and false light. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Tennessee granted TripAdvisor’s motion to dismiss the claim, holding that the statements at issue were purely subjective opinion and unverifiable rhetorical hyperbole. Seaton appealed the dismissal of his defamation claim to the Sixth Circuit.

The DMLP submitted its friend of the court brief urging the Sixth Circuit to affirm the district court’s decision. As the DMLP argues, opinions based on disclosed facts are not defamation under Tennessee law, and protecting such opinions is consistent with the goals of the First Amendment. By disclosing the reviews on which it relied, TripAdvisor enabled its readers to independently assess the rankings, subjecting its conclusions to the marketplace of ideas rather than the courts. The DMLP further called to the attention of the court that the use of crowdsourcing to collect data has become common in both data-based journalism and in academic research. Crowdsourcing is now crucial to journalists’ ability to play their traditional watchdog function, as well as their ability to provide up-to-date information in times of crisis. Failure to protect opinions based on such data would jeopardize those crucial functions.

"Crowd-sourced information gathered from online media platforms provides uniquely powerful data about breaking issues and large-scale events which would be difficult if not impossible for journalists and scholars to compile using traditional research techniques." said the DMLP's Director, Jeff Hermes.

The DMLP regularly contributes to amicus curiae briefs in cases with important implications for online speech, journalism, and the public good that are of direct interest to all members of the news media and, indeed, the public as a whole. The DMLP was represented on the brief by the Cyberlaw Clinic.  The DMLP and the Cyberlaw Clinic are both based at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society, an organization dedicated to studying the development of cyberspace. Cyberlaw Clinic students Jillian Stonecipher, Andrew Crocker, and Emma Raviv drafted the brief, alongside DMLP Director Jeff Hermes, DMLP Staff Attorney Andy Sellars, and Cyberlaw Clinic Assistant Director Christopher Bavitz.

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