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Would-be politician fails in Yahoo! and Ask.com lawsuit

Court rules no obligation to uphold free speech

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A would-be candidate for Governor of New York who failed to gather enough signatures to be placed on the ballot has failed in his attempt to sue Yahoo! and Ask.com for undermining his 'master election plan'.

William Murawski describes himself as a 'frequent political candidate' who wanted to run in the 2006 election to be governor of New York. He filed a petition but failed to gather the required 15,000 signatures.

He then sued (pdf) Yahoo!, Ask.com and the operator of a political website variously for refusing to list him on a site and for a search engine listing he believed identified him as a communist.

He sued Yahoo! because he claimed he was not allowed to post messages to email groups of which he was a member at vital times in the campaign. He claimed that this was a violation of his right to free speech as guaranteed by the first amendment of the US constitution.

The US District Court for the Southern District of New York said that there had been no explanation of how Yahoo! had supposedly stopped him from publishing messages.

The Court ruled that because Yahoo! is a private, for profit company it has no obligation to uphold Murawski's constitutional rights.

Murawski even claimed that Yahoo! was a 'state actor' and therefore under a constitutional obligation because it had once received public funding.

"The Court rejects plaintiff's contention in his opposition that Yahoo! Inc. is transformed into a state actor because it benefited from early public funding of the development of the internet," said US District Judge Richard Holwell.

Murawski also sued Ronald Gunzburger, the operator of politics website Politics1.com, for failing to list him on the site, again supposedly in violation of his rights to free speech. When Gunzburger did list Murawski amongst the other candidates, Murawski then sued him because he was listed next to a communist.

Murawski said that when search engines found the list the listing could be read as identifying him as a communist. The list read: "Maura DeLuca (SWP) – Garment Worker & Communist Political Organizer & Ben O'Shaughnessy (SWP) – College Student & Communist Political Organizer Bill Murawski (Write-In) – Journalist, Public Access TV Show Producer & Frequent Candidate & Donald Winkfield (Write-In) – Journalist".

Because search engines list terms without paragraph breaks, Murawski's name appeared next to the description of a Communist. The Court said that this was no basis for a suit.

"It is thus apparent that Gunzburger did not identify plaintiff as a communist on his website, and thus there is no basis for plaintiff’s claim against Gunzburger," he said. "The fact that various search engines displayed the text from Politics1.com without line breaks is not attributable to Gunzburger."

The Court also said that the claim on free speech failed because, like Yahoo!, it is a private company.

Murawski also sued Ask.com because of its reproduction of Gunzburger's list. The Court said that Murawski could not sue Ask.com over that reproduction because the company is protected by section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, a law which says that interactive computer service providers are protected from prosecution when they simply publish the content of a third party.

Copyright © 2007, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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