*Websites shielded from liability for sex assaults
*Case comes amid calls for restrictions on website speech (Adds MySpace comment, byline)
By Gina Keating
LOS ANGELES, July 1 (Reuters) - Internet servers like MySpace cannot be held liable when minors are sexually assaulted by people they first meet on a website, a California appeals court ruled in an opinion filed late on Tuesday.
The ruling by the Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles is consistent with federal appeals court rulings.
It comes a day before the sentencing, also in Los Angeles, of a Missouri woman accused of using a fake MySpace profile to harass a teenage girl. The girl committed suicide.
The appellate court consolidated several similar lawsuits brought by minor girls dubbed “Julie Does” and their parents or guardians, claiming that MySpace failed to implement available age-verification software or set the default security on the girls’ accounts to “private.”
But the Los Angeles-based appeals court found that a section of the Communications Decency Act immunizes Web servers against the girls’ claims of negligence and product liability.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs could not be reached for comment.
A spokeswoman for MySpace, which is owned by News Corp (NWSA.O), said in a statement that the company was “pleased” the court had reaffirmed other courts’ decisions that it and other websites “cannot be held liable for content posted by, or wrongdoing committed by, individuals who visit our site.”
Electronic Frontier Foundation spokeswoman Rebecca Jeschke said the opinion was “very important” in light of recent calls by several states’ attorneys general for online classifieds site Craigslist to remove what they claimed were illegal sex ads.
The controversy erupted after two people were allegedly killed by others they met through the online ads.
Social networking sites were also watching the so-called MySpace Mom case in Los Angeles, in which Missouri mother Lori Drew was indicted on charges that included felony conspiracy for harassing her daughter’s rival with cruel messages via a fake MySpace profile.
A federal jury cleared Drew of the most serious charges but found her guilty of three misdemeanor counts. She faces up to a three years in prison and fines when she is sentenced on Thursday. The case made worldwide headlines and brought calls for social networking sites to crack down on such activities.
“The idea is, you hold the speaker responsible not the soapbox,” Jeschke said. “If you want any kind of social interaction on the Internet this is very important.”
The opinion is Julie Doe II et al v. MySpace Inc, Case No. B205643, Second District Court of Appeals. (Reporting by Gina Keating; Editing by Gary Hill)