'The Good Wife': Good Law? - Season 5, Episode 9 - Celebrity Justice
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'The Good Wife': Good Law? - Season 5, Episode 9

"The Good Wife" took a turn for the confusing and complicated this week when it tackled the trendy issue of Internet service providers' liability for user-uploaded content.

Here's a rundown of the legal issues Florrick & Agos took on in "Whack-a-Mole":

Episode Recap (Spoiler Alert!):

In the case of the week, Alicia and Cary try to hold a website accountable for defamation when its users accuse their client, a college professor named Zayeed Shaheed, of being linked to domestic terrorism.

The Good Wife: Good Law?

Season 5, Episode 9
"Whack-a-Mole"

Legal References:


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Scabbit, a social news entertainment website that hosts user-generated discussion threads (basically, a fictional version of Reddit) is the offender. Of course, Scabbit is represented by Lockhart & Gardner. Awkward!

The lawsuit stems from a game of legal "Whack-a-Mole": Scabbit hosts defamatory discussion threads that claim Shaheed is a terrorist; Florrick & Agos demand the threads be taken down. As soon as Scabbit removes them, new defamatory threads immediately crop up. Rinse and repeat.

The vicious cycle comes to an end when it's discovered the company itself -- and not private users -- generated the threads about Shaheed by using a social bot.

Legal Roots:

Loosely paralleling the real-life Texas case of MCW, Inc. v. badbusinessbureau.com, Scabbit was found liable for defamation because its own social bot posted the disparaging discussion threads to drive traffic to the website.

Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, online intermediaries that host or republish speech are immune from legal claims that are based on what their users say and do. Section 230 also protects service providers from being forced to censor user content. If Section 230 immunity didn't exist, websites like Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter could potentially be sued every time a user's speech violated the law.

But Section 230's immunity has limits: it doesn't apply to federal criminal liability or to intellectual property claims. In this episode, it was an issue of defamation.

Legal Fiction:

"Whack-a-Mole" glossed over just how unclear the immunity is for defamation -- especially for rumor-spreading websites.

For exapmle, websites like TheDirty.com have been held liable for online defamation, but it's still very unclear what kind of purposeful action extinguishes Section 230 immunity. Since Scabbit made its posts based on user-generated content, in real life, the company's liability would be a tricky legal matter.

Legal Fact:

Just like we saw in the episode, Section 230 typically shields service providers from liability for defamation unless the company lacked good faith and had a hand in producing the defamatory content.

Editing user content to make the meaning defamatory can lead to the loss of Section 230's immunity. Scabbit lost its immunity when its social bot, under the handle of "ChubbySocks52," repackaged user comments to make them tantalizing -- and defamatory.

Legal Babble:

Cease-and-desist order. Alicia talks about Scabbit failing to follow the cease-and-desist order, an order from a court to stop engaging in a particular activity or practice.

Prior restraint. The judge doesn't force Scabbit to prevent users from making comments because it would be a prior restraint, a restriction on speech before it's made.

The Verdict:

Section 230 is always a fun, relatable and cutting-edge area of the law to explore. Methinks this is all a big setup for a Chumhum showdown. Exciting!

What did you think of this week's episode of "The Good Wife"? Is the show guilty of making any legal mistakes? Check back here for more legal recaps of "The Good Wife," and send us a tweet at @FindLawConsumer with the hashtag #TheGoodWife.

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