The law of the land varies by the land. What might work in one country won’t work in another. Some countries are more strict, some less so. It is useful to know the laws that govern community management in your country.

That doesn’t mean you will necessarily know the law backwards and forwards (that’s why we have lawyers, because it can be so complex), but a basic understanding of the protections you are provided under the law can go a long way to ensuring confidence in the decisions that you make for your community. In this post, I’d like to highlight two particular acts that community managers based in the United States should know about.

Communications Decency Act

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Communications Decency Act (CDA). The portion that is specifically helpful to community managers is Section 230.

Section 230 of the CDA protects community owners and managers from liability for information posted on the community by other parties. In other words, if someone joins your community and posts something that is libelous or false, the person who posted that information is the one that should be held responsible, not the community that is hosting that information.

This is not a reason to be lazy or to simply allow people to say whatever they want, because Section 230 exists. In fact, the beauty of Section 230 is that it further empowers community managers to manage the community at their discretion.

“Congress enacted a statute, 47 U.S.C. 230, in 1996 to provide user generated content (UGC) site operators with the absolute right to manage their website without liability for their editorial choices,” Santa Clara University School of Law Professor of Law Eric Goldman told me recently in an interview for my article on terms of service. Check out Mr. Goldman’s “Online User Account Termination and 47 U.S.C. ยง230(c)(2)” essay for more information.

Community operations in other countries do not have the same protections. For example, the United Kingdom is notorious for their libel laws, which can hold the publisher of the information responsible. Which is why we needed…

SPEECH Act

Passed unanimously in both the House and Senate, President Barack Obama signed the SPEECH Act into law in 2010. SPEECH is short for Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage. It was created in response to libel tourism. Basically, people would choose to file their lawsuit in a court (country) that was more favorable to them, where they may have an easier time getting a judgement. For a good read on this and the impact it can have, check out Ron Chepesiuk’s “Libel Tourism” article.

Where the SPEECH Act comes in is that it makes foreign libel judgements unenforceable in U.S. courts, unless they are complaint with the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. In other words, they can win as many libel judgements as they want in other countries, but if it doesn’t meet that standard, then it will not be enforced in the U.S. While the U.K. laws are generally cited as a big motivation for the act (see this article by The Guardian’s Ron Greenslade), it has also been applied to judgements won in other countries.

If you are a U.S. community manager, hopefully your increased knowledge of these two acts, and the protection they provide, will allow you to feel further empowered to manage your community in a responsible way.

Please note: this is a general discussion about legal topics, not legal advice. You should consult an attorney on matters of this nature and not simply rely on this general exploration of complicated topics.