The Single Publication Rule and Statute of Limitations in Defamation Cases

The Single Publication Rule and Statute of Limitations in Defamation Cases

The single publication rule in defamation claims is a rule that prevents a cause of action for defamation from accruing with each additional publication, with some qualifications.  The single publication rule prevents the statute of limitations from restarting each time a defamatory article is published and provides that the statute of limitations runs from the date of first publication.

Generally speaking, a cause of action for defamation accrues whenever a defamatory statement is made, and each repetition of a single defamatory statement constitutes a new cause of action. Restatement (Second) Torts §577A, comment a. The rise of mass publication, however, gave rise to the “single publication rule,” which provides that any one edition of a publication containing the defamatory material shall be deemed to be a single publication. Restatement (Second) Torts § 577A (1977) The cause of action for defamation is deemed to arise on the edition’s original publication date, even if the edition is printed and distributed over multiple dates.

When a book or magazine edition is released, it is deemed a single publication even though its printing may have occurred over the course of several days.  A single edition also exists even if an unaltered reprint of the material is produced shortly after the first printing is exhausted. An initial edition will constitute only one publication, and a cause of action regarding its contents would accrue upon the first date of publication only and not on the publication of subsequent editions.

Nevertheless, if a book, for example, is first issued as a hardcover and later released as a paperback, the paperback would be deemed to be a second publication. A new cause of action would accrue as of the date of the issuance of the paperback edition. Likewise, if the same edition is printed ten years later, long after the first print was exhausted, the second printing is deemed a subsequent publication, with a new statute of limitations because it is designed to reach a new audience.  When an unaltered article containing defamatory material is reissued in a second, paperback or morning/afternoon edition, it is deemed to be a second publication that constitutes a separate cause of action for defamation with its own separate litigation period and so is not covered by the single publication rule.

There have been significant challenges in application of the single publication rule to internet publications as internet publications are markedly different than print publications whose distribution is finite as opposed to internet publications which are arguably infinite in publication as it is “published” anew each time it appears in search results for readers to find and review.

The trend in most jurisdictions in the United States is to apply the single publication rule to internet publications of content weighing the prospect of a statute of limitations without end versus achieving finality for when internet publications which are defamatory remain actionable.

One issue with respect to internet publications and the single publication rule is the issue of when changes or modifications are made to an internet publications will trigger a “republication” so as to avoid the single publication rule and become a subsequent publication with a new cause of action and new statute of limitations.

Does the revamping of a website with a defamatory publication where the posting becomes more prominent or more visible restart the statute of limitations?   Does republishing the same internet article to a new URL that is arguably more visible to search engine results a new publication?  Does changing a headline without changing the content of the original posting which arguably makes an internet posting more visible or searchable a republication designed to reach a new audience a republication in avoidance of the single publication?  Does the analysis of the single publication rule for print in terms of whether the publication is designed to reach a new audience make any sense at all in analyzing internet publications for application of the single publication rule given a new audience appears each time the publication is accessed though a search engine and is accessible for all time?

These issues have recently or are all being litigated in applying the single publication rule to defamatory internet publications.  If you have been defamed on the internet and it is suggested that the statute of limitations has run on your claim under the single publication rule, don’t throw in the towel without consulting an experienced attorney who can assist you in properly analyzing your potential internet defamation claim under the current state of the law.

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