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Green v. America Online (AOL)

January 16, 2003

JOHN GREEN APPELLANT
v.
AMERICA ONLINE (AOL); JOHN DOES 1 & 2



On Appeal From the United States District Court For the District of New Jersey (D.C. Civ. No. 00-cv-03367) District Judge: Honorable Joseph A. Greenaway, Jr.

Before: Sloviter, Rendell And Rosenn, Circuit Judges

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rosenn, Circuit Judge.

PRECEDENTIAL

Submitted Under Third Circuit LAR 34.1(a) November 15, 2002

OPINION OF THE COURT

The primary issue raised in this appeal, one of first impression in this court, is whether American Online, Inc. (AOL), a provider of interactive computer services, is statutorily immune from liability from causes of action arising from third party content. The plaintiff, John Green, sued AOL and John Does 1 and 2 in the Superior Court of New Jersey. In his one hundred and ten paragraph pro se amended complaint, aptly described by the District Court as "not especially clear," the plaintiff alleges that AOL negligently failed to live up to its contractual obligations to Green by refusing to take necessary action against John Does 1 and 2, who allegedly transmitted harmful online messages to Green and others.

Green named AOL as an additional defendant, claiming that the messages were transmitted during the course of conversations carried on through the AOL international work service. Because Green amended his complaint in the state court, adding a claim that AOL violated his First Amendment rights, AOL removed the case to the District Court for the District of New Jersey. The District Court denied Green's motion to remand to the state court. AOL moved to dismiss all claims against it on the ground that it was statutorily immune from all tort claims against it relating to the John Doe defendants' messages by virtue of the provisions of 47 U.S.C. S 230. The District Court granted AOL's motion.*fn1 Green timely appealed from the order denying his motion to remand to the state court and from the order dismissing his claims against AOL. We affirm.

I.

Undisputed by the parties, AOL is the world's largest interactive computer service with over 2.2 million members. It provides its millions of subscribers information that is only available though its international network of interconnected computers and services, and access to the public Internet. (117-18A). It also provides or enables, inter alia, a number of online communications tools, such as e-mail, news groups, and chat rooms, that allow its subscribers to communicate with one another and with other users of the Internet. (Id.)

A subscriber to AOL must agree to the terms of its Member Agreement, which requires subscribers to adhere to AOL's standards for online speech and conduct set forth in AOL's "Community Guidelines." Green subscribed to AOL using the screen name "Lawyerkill." A screen name is commonly used by persons when communicating through an online service such as AOL. The other two defendants, John Doe 1 and John Doe 2, allegedly were also AOL subscribers adopting the screen names "LegendaryPOLCIA" and "Lawyerkiii," respectively. (116A) "Lawyerkiii" appears as "Lawyerkill" when the letter "i" is capitalized.

Green's amended complaint alleges that the John Doe defendants transmitted certain content in the AOL chat room "Romance - New Jersey over 30." Chat rooms are a modern-day analog to yesteryear's telephone party lines and allow individual parties to "talk" to as many as twenty-three other parties at one time. The first chat room incident of which Green complains involved John Doe 1, who allegedly entered the chat room conversation under the screen name "LegendaryPOLCIA." (121A) Green alleges that John Doe 1 "sent a punter through AOL, which caused Green's computer to lock up and Green had to restart his computer." Green's complaint describes a "punter" as a computer program created by a hacker whose purpose is to halt and disrupt another computer. Upon restarting his computer and entering the chat room where the punter had been delivered, Green learned that "LegendaryPOLCIA" claimed credit for producing what he called the"blue screen of death." Green alleges that he lost five hours of work restarting his computer, causing him damages of approximately $400.

Green also alleges that he and unidentified others reported John Doe 1 to AOL who informed him that they would take no action unless he provided evidence that "LegendaryPOLCIA" sent the destructive signal. Green alleges that he provided additional evidence to AOL but it took "no effective action to stop `LegendaryPOLCIA.' " The amended complaint alleges other online episodes in which "LegendaryPOLCIA" (John Doe 1) and "Lawyerkiii" (John Doe 2) allegedly defamed and inflicted emotional distress on Green. First, the complaint alleges that "LegendaryPOLCIA" defamed Green by typing the messages "SHELLS CAREFUL LAWYER IS BI" and "LAWYER NO IMS FOR GAY SEX THX:))" in a chat room titled "Romance - New Jersey over 30." Green alleges that he faxed AOL a log of the chat room showing "LegendaryPOLCIA" defaming him but AOL did nothing to stop it. The complaint also alleges that on two occasions "LawyerKiii" impersonated Green entering a chat room and "asking guys in the chat room for gay sex." The complaint also purported to plead a general negligence claim against AOL for failure to police its services.

There were also allegations that AOL's Community Guidelines violated Green's First Amendment rights because they required Green to adhere to them when he used AOL service to access the Internet. Green further alleged that AOL violated the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act by filing legal actions against third parties for sending unlawful bulk, unsolicited e-mail (commonly known as "Spam") to AOL subscribers and by blocking access to unspecified "internet newsgroups."

The complaint demanded a total of $400 in compensatory damages from AOL and the two John Doe plaintiffs and unspecified punitive damages. It also sought injunctive relief to enjoin AOL from restricting Green's ability to send and ...


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