In the suit, which was filed in Windham County Superior Court Nov. 16, Rescue volunteer Effie Mayhew alleges that David Dunn, who served as executive director until resigning earlier this month, and ibrattleboro owners Chris Grotke and Lise LePage committed libel and "intentional infliction of emotional distress."
The suit pertains to a Sept. 30 comment posted to the site by Dunn, who was responding both to a previous anonymous critique of his leadership style and a column Mayhew wrote in the Reformer. In the comment, Dunn accused Mayhew of conducting an adulterous affair on Rescue premises and said that others who had signed a petition requesting his resignation had engaged in similar behavior.
Mayhew, who would not comment while the suit is pending, said in the complaint that Dunn's comments were "unequivocally false," caused her "psychic pain and anguish and severe emotional distress," and led to her termination from another job.
"It was malicious. It was intentional. It was heartbreaking to her. It was not truthful. It meets all the qualifications for defamation," said Mayhew's attorney, Margot Stone. "He said those terrible things, he meant them, and he never retracted them -- nor did the Internet site retract or apologize."
Dunn, who announced his resignation shortly after posting the comments and just prior to a scheduled no-confidence vote requested by Rescue employees and volunteers, declined to comment.
Grotke and LePage would not comment on the specifics of the case, but Grotke said ibrattleboro was not responsible for comments posted to the site.
"Our policy is pretty clear that if anyone has any problem with anything put up there, they can contact us and we'll take it down," he said. "In general, people have to stand by what they write. We can't be the police for everybody in town. All we do is provide the platform for this communication."
According to LePage, while original stories posted to the site are moderated, subsequent comments -- like Dunn's -- are posted automatically and are not screened. Nevertheless, Grotke said, he and LePage "take it seriously" when contacted and have taken down offensive comments a number of times.
But according to Stone, ibrattleboro must follow the same rules as any publication, and its owners are responsible for the site's contents.
"They should have edited it out or e-mailed (Dunn) and said 'we can't publish it as it stands,'" Stone said. "I think their defense will be that they don't read prior to publishing, but I'm not sure that will be enough to avoid some degree of liability."
The question of Grotke's and LePage's liability may hinge on the tricky question of whether unconventional forms of media are subject to the same laws as conventional news organizations -- an area of case law that is still developing.
ibrattleboro, which was founded in February 2003, defines itself on its "policies" page as "an online community news website" and refers to its contributors as "citizen journalists," but it also states that "the submissions and comments are the property and responsibility of the person who wrote it."
According to Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center and a law professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, "Generally speaking, organizations that host blogs or provide Internet services have very broad immunity from liability under section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act -- so broad, in fact, that a number of federal judges think the law should be changed."
The CDA, a landmark piece of federal Internet legislation passed in 1996, holds that "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider."
While a number of federal cases have upheld the immunity of Internet service providers like America Online, the law becomes murkier when the provider is an active contributor of content.
According to Internet and technology attorney Eric Sinrod, who said he could not comment on the specifics of the case, "The more actively involved a Web site is in terms of actually creating content or acquiring certain types of content, they get closer to the line of perhaps losing their immunity."
According to the Web site, Grotke and LePage, who run MuseArts Inc., "own the site and acts as moderators, as well as contributors."
Both Grotke and LePage responded to Dunn's comments on the Web site shortly after they were published. In his post, Grotke defends the publication, arguing that "Dunn's signed comments are his own" and "Web sites are not liable for what others add in comments."
Stone conceded that "The law of Internet writings and publications is evolving as we speak," but she felt confident her client would win the suit.
"I would say it's not 100 percent clear in this jurisdiction, but it's about to be," she said.
Paul Heintz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.