The single publication rule, long-recognized in newspaper and magazine libel cases, also applies to Internet publications, the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Kentucy ruled last week in Salyer v. Southern Poverty Law Center (37 Med. L. Rptr. 1693; 2009 WL 1036907).
Traditionally, under the single publication rule, the entire edition of a newspaper or magazine is a single publication that can give rise to only one action for defamation, irrespective of whether the allegedly defamatory work appears again after its original publication. Reissuing an allegedly defamatory publication does not restart the statute of limitations, the time period within which an action must be brought before it becomes time-barred.
U.S. District Court Judge John G. Heyburn II, has allowed the parties in the Salyer case time to engage in discovery on the narrow issue of the statute of limitations. The plaintiff, a Kentucky resident, purportedly learned about the allegedly defamatory statements on the defendant's Web site in July 2008, though the defendant concedes the statements at issue appeared on its Web site in July 2006, and a printed version containing the allegedly defamatory statements was mailed in August 2006. On its face, plaintiff's claim, which was filed in December 2008, would be knocked out by the statute of limitations defense.
Republication of material is an exception to the single publication rule. In the context of Web sites, republication involves substantially modifying the content. Discovery will determine whether any changes to the defendant's Web site during the germane time period constitute substantial modification.
In his decision, Judge Heyburn acknowledged that although the Internet affords widespread accessibility to allegedly defamatory content that can significantly harm the libeled party, that same accessibility also makes it easier for the victim to identify allegedly defmatory content. The court found no reason to distinish the Internet from other publication sources, and therefore, held that the single publication rule should apply to the online medium as well.