Well, according to a California intermediate appellate court: it depends. The case, Hung Tan Phan v. Lang Van Pham, ___ Cal. App. 4th ___, G-041666 (Feb. 25, 2010), posed the question: “What happens when you receive a defamatory e-mail over the internet and simply hit the forward icon on your computer, sending it to someone else?” The answer, according to the court, depends on whether the forwarding party made a “material contribution” to the defamatory e-mail.
The case arose after the president of a group of veterans from the Navy and Merchant Marine of the Republic of Vietnam sent an e-mail accusing the plaintiff of being disciplined for abusive behavior by the Navy of the Republic of Vietnam. The defendant received the e-mail and forwarded it on to at least one other member of the group. But he included an introductory paragraph:
Everything will come out to the daylight, I invite you and our classmates to read the following comments of Senior Duc (Duc Xuan Nguyen) President of the Federal of Associations of the Republic of Vietnam Navy and Merchant Marine. (sic.)
The court found that this preliminary statement did not make a “material contribution” to the defamatory statement, saying: “His original language, quoted in full . . . merely said, in essence: Look at this and ‘Everything will come out to the daylight (sic.).’ All he said was: The truth will come out in the end. What will be will be. Whatever.” As such, the court dismissed the defamation claim.
Simply put, the “material contribution” test requires that the person forwarding the e-mail contribute her own defamatory material.
While this case comes from California, it could nevertheless have profound effects on anyone e-mailing someone located in California.