People and companies who post words and images on their websites can face lawsuits over that content—but for how long? Does the risk of a lawsuit arise anew each time new content is added or each time the website refreshes? Some plaintiffs have argued that it does, or should. Some defendants—and nearly every court—have considered that argument silly.

After more than a decade of lawsuits elsewhere, there finally is a Minnesota-specific decision on the point.

Officially adopting the approach followed by other courts, the Eighth Circuit applied the single-publication rule to Internet publications earlier this month in Shepard v. TheHuffingtonPost.Com, Inc., No. 12-4036, 2013 U.S. App. LEXIS 11490 (8th Cir. June 7, 2013).

Minnesota has long applied the single-publication rule to traditional media so that the statute of limitations for a mass-produced newspaper, book or magazine begins to run when the publication is first released to the public and does not restart with subsequent sales. However, until Shepard there was a dearth of Minnesota-specific authority on the issue of how the single-publication rule applies to material posted on websites.

The case involved a May 20, 2010, publication by The Huffington Post of an online article titled "Support Jack Shepard, The Arsonist, for Congress." Shepard, a 2010 candidate for the Republican nomination in Minnesota's 4th Congressional District who in the 1980s was accused, but never convicted, of arson, objected to the title as libelous. In a libel suit filed in June 2012, Shepard claimed the article was republished on May 25, 2011, re-starting Minnesota's two-year statute of limitations. The district court dismissed the action, holding the single-publication rule barred Shepard's claim because the subsequent publications were unchanged in content and "incidental."

On appeal to the Eighth Circuit, the "unpublished" per curiam opinion upheld the district court's dismissal. It stated that, as applied to Internet media, the single-publication rule prevents the statute of limitation from re-starting "unless [the] defamatory statement is substantively altered or added to." Although the decision is not binding precedent, the court's treatment of the issue suggests that the judges considered this legal principle to be well-established and beyond serious dispute.

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