Techdirt's Mike Masnick Defeats $15M Libel Lawsuit From Self-Proclaimed Inventor of Email

"[T]he question of who invented e-mail is not subject to one, and only one, 'true' answer," a federal judge writes.
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Mike Masnick

In a win for tech writers who scrutinize the history of email, a federal judge has dismissed a libel claim against Techdirt founder Mike Masnick for publicly questioning one man's account of digital mail's inception.

Shiva Ayyadurai says he invented email. In January, he sued Masnick, Techdirt scribe Leigh Beadon and the site's parent company, Floor64 Inc., in Massachusetts federal court following a series of articles published over the course of two years that doubted his claim. Masnick's attorney Robert Bertsche filed both a motion to dismiss and a motion to strike the complaint under California's anti-SLAPP statute, which often brings an early end to lawsuits arising from protected activity like free speech.

Ayyadurai's attorney Charles Harder challenged the motion arguing that using California law in a Massachusetts legal fight is improper and the statute itself allows defendants to file a meritless motion and immediately appeal if they lose, meanwhile the plaintiff's "evidence grows stale" awaiting the outcome.

U.S. District Judge Dennis Saylor agreed with Harder, to some extent, but still dismissed Ayyadurai's case with prejudice.

The court found that there was a clear conflict between Massachusetts law, which allows parties to move to dismiss claims based on that party's exercise of its right to petition, and the broader California law which also includes acts furthering free speech. Further complicating the analysis is the Massachusett's choice-of-law principle that allows the court to consider whether another state "has a greater interest in the determination of the particular issue."

"Massachusetts has attempted to balance the encouragement of protected speech with the desire to protect those who are harmed by defamatory statements," writes Saylor. "Under the circumstances presented here, there is no reason to favor California’s policy over that of Massachusetts."

Accordingly, Saylor denied the motion to strike and proceeded to evaluate the motion to dismiss under Massachusetts law. The court also held that Ayyadurai is a limited-purpose public figure and the invention of email is a matter of public interest. Therefore the scientist needed to prove the statements are false and meet the actual malice standard by plausibly alleging that Masnick either knew they were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

Ayyadurai may have created an electronic interoffice mail program for a New Jersey dentistry school in the late 1970s, but Saylor found that doesn't necessarily answer the question of whether he's the inventor of email or the creator of an email system. Regardless, Saylor found the challenged statements are protected by the First Amendment.

"First, by its nature, the question of who invented e-mail is not subject to one, and only one, 'true' answer," writes Saylor. "The answer depends upon how 'e-mail' itself is defined. ... Because that definition does not have a single, objectively correct answer, the claim is incapable of being proved true or false."

He also found that other statements likewise couldn't be proved false, were subjective or included figurative language or hyperbole, which also precludes a defamation claim — and that Ayyadurai failed to plausibly allege any of the statements were made with actual malice.

Beadon was sued for one article, which was largely composed of Techdirt reader comments on the topic, and argued the claims against him are barred by the Communications Decency Act.

"All of the allegedly defamatory comments identified in the complaint are contained within the re-posted user comments," writes Saylor. "Whether defendants are immune under the CDA thus depends upon whether re-posting comments originally created by third-party users amounts to the 'creation or development of information.'"

While Beadon "arguably adopted or ratified" the comments by choosing them, Saylor held he isn't liable under the CDA. He writes, "Republishing an already-existing user-submitted comment, without altering the content of that comment, does not materially contribute to its allegedly defamatory nature."

Saylor also dismissed Ayyadurai's claims for intentional interference with prospective economic advantage and emotional distress. Read his full opinion below.

Harder issued a statement Wednesday in response to the decision and said Ayyadurai will appeal the ruling.

"Dr. Ayyadurai has a long history of standing up for free speech," he said. "As a strong proponent of free speech, he also believes in truthful speech. False speech is not protected by the Constitution, and TechDirt’s false and malicious speech about Dr. Ayyadurai should receive no legal protection. False speech does harm to readers, who are misled by it; it does harm to journalism, which is weakened by it; and it does harm to the subjects of the speech, whose reputations and careers are damaged by it. The public, and the courts, should not tolerate false speech, particularly when it causes people harm, and irresponsible media companies should stop using the Constitution as an excuse for their reckless dissemination of false information."

Sept. 6, 9:40 p.m. Updated with a statement from Ayyadurai's attorney Charles Harder.