Petro-Lubricant Testing Labs, Inc. v. Asher Adelman, 233 N.J. 236 (2018)
In New Jersey, the statute of limitations for a libel/defamation claim is one year. New Jersey follows the “single publication rule,” which means that a single cause of action arises at the first publication of defamatory content regardless of how many copies of the publication are subsequently distributed or sold. An exception to the single publication rule is “republication,” which triggers the start of a new statute of limitations. In Petro-Lubricant Testing Labs, Inc. v. Asher Adelman, 233 N.J. 236 (2018), the New Jersey Supreme Court addressed the application of the “single publication rule” to the Internet for the first time and set the contours for what types of changes to an online article would constitute a republication of that article.
The facts of the case are that in August 2010, the defendant published a post on the eBossWatch.com blog, which summarized a hostile work environment lawsuit that had been filed against the plaintiffs. In 2011, the defendant received a threatening letter from the plaintiffs’ attorney contending that the article was false and defamatory. In response, the defendant edited the 2010 post about the lawsuit to soften the tone of the content and make it more closely quote the sexual harassment complaint that had been filed. The defendant stood by the post, stating that it was a fair reporting of the original harassment complaint filed against the plaintiffs.
Pashman Stein Walder Hayden attorney CJ Griffin submitted an amicus curiae brief in the New Jersey Supreme Court on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey (ACLU-NJ) and argued that changes to an online article should not constitute republication unless the author substantially and materially changes the content of the article in an effort to reach a new audience. However, the brief argued that even where there are substantial and material changes to an article, there is no republication if the changes are made to “soften” the allegedly defamatory content. The brief noted the serious implications the court’s decision would have on free speech and highlighted the need for the media to be able to edit online articles to fix inaccuracies without the fear of triggering a new statute of limitations each time an edit is made.
The court ruled that the single publication rule applies to an Internet article and addressed the contours of what types of changes would constitute a republication and trigger a new liability period. The court held that republication occurs only where a substantive and material change occurs, i.e., a change that relates to the defamatory content of the article and “alters the meaning of the original defamatory article or is essentially a new defamatory statement incorporated into the original article.” Thankfully, the court ruled that not every change to an article constitutes a republication, giving online publishers leeway to fix typos and grammatical errors, rephrase sentences, and make minor factual changes, without worrying that a new period of defamation liability will result.