The US Supreme Court yesterday supported a lower court ruling that says Internet service providers (ISP) can't be held liable when a person is defamed in email or online bulletin board messages.

Acting without comment, the court rejected an appeal filed by plaintiff Alexander G Lunney after the New York Court of Appeals dismissed his suit against Prodigy Services late last year.

The suit stems from a 1994 incident in which an impostor sent several vulgar email messages in Lunney's name to a Boy Scout leader in the town where he lived. Lunney's father sued Prodigy claiming that the boy, then 15, was "stigmatized by being falsely cast as the author of these messages".

Not responsible In its December ruling, the New York Court said Prodigy couldn't be held liable for the stigma created by the false messages because it can't be considered the publisher of the messages.

Prodigy has only a passive role as a carrier of information and isn't a publisher, the appeals court ruled. The ruling went on to say that even if it could be proved that Prodigy was a publisher in the legal sense, the ISP "would be entitled to a qualified privilege subject to the common-law exception for malice or bad faith".

Not possible The appeals court also rejected Lunney’s assertion that Prodigy failed to properly investigate people when they signed up for email accounts and thus allowed the impostor to create a false account using Lunney's name.

Prodigy argued that such a standard would be impossible because it would require "an ISP to perform investigations on millions of potential subscribers", court records say.

Lunney proved he didn't write the vulgar messages, but still received a letter from Prodigy saying it was closing the account opened in his name due to the obscene content of the messages. When it was determined that Lunney hadn't actually opened the account, Prodigy apologized.