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A recent decision by the Massachusetts Appeals Court considered when and how a plaintiff can sue a defendant for comments made online. The key points of the decision are as follows:

Statue of limitations

According to the court, an action for defamation due to an online post must commence within three years of the date of publication, i.e., the date when the statement was posted online. The court rejected the argument that the statue of limitations begins from the time that plaintiff first learned of the publication.

Single-publication rule

Next the court held that the defendant/publisher (in this case a newspaper) can be sued for only one instance of defamation and cannot be sued for each and every time a person viewed the posts at issue.

Under the [single-publication rule], a person may bring one (and only one) cause of action for defamation against the publisher based on its publication of the defamatory statement.

Fair report privilege

Finally, the court ruled that the “fair report privilege” applied to online posts such as the one at issue here where a newspaper simply reported on the plaintiff’s arrest based on the official police report.

The fair report privilege establishes a safe harbor for those who report on statements and actions so long as the statements or actions are official and so long as the report about them is fair and accurate.”  Howell v. Enterprise Publ. Co., 455 Mass. 641, 651 (2010)….a report need give only a rough-and-ready summary that was substantially correct in order to qualify for the fair report privilege.  A statement is considered a fair report if its gist or sting is true, that is, if it produces the same effect on the mind of the recipient which the precise truth would have produced.

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