In a variation on a familiar phrase, a federal trial court effectively has ruled that, in the context of a website posting customers’ reviews of their retail buying experiences, “you can’t blame the message board.”

In the case before the court, the defendant was an online consumer affairs company that allowed third parties to post commentary on the company’s website about their impressions of various businesses.  The plaintiffs were a group of franchised car dealers who went on the offensive because of several less than complimentary reviews of their dealerships by customers who posted reviews on the website.

The dealerships’ clams of defamation and tortuous interference with business expectancy failed because of  a provision in the federal Communications Decency Act.  The statue, by its plain language, creates a federal immunity to any cause of action that would make providers of any interactive computer service liable for information originating with a third-party user of the service.  Specifically, the law precludes courts from entertaining claims that would place a computer service provider in a publisher’s role.