Bloggers enjoy First Amendment protection against libel suits

Friday, January 24, 2014

A website that castigates others as “evil doers” and “thugs” has exactly the same First Amendment protection as USA TODAY and the New York Times – and that’s a good thing.

In a landmark decision on Friday, a federal appellate court held for the first time that blogs enjoy the same First Amendment protection from libel suits as traditional news media.

At issue were the blog posts of Crystal Cox, who accused Bend, Oregon attorney Kevin Padrick and his firm Obsidian Finance Group of misconduct in connection with his role as a trustee in a bankruptcy case. A jury awarded the plaintiffs $2.5 million in damages.

But the U.S Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit saw things differently, deciding that Cox’s allegations were matters of public interest and to sue her successfully, Padrick would have to prove her negligence – the same standard that applies when news media are sued.

“The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist,” Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote.

While the Supreme Court has previously observed that the lines between traditional news media and native web content have become blurred, this makes the first time that federal appellate court has essentially said that journalists and bloggers are one and the same when it comes to the First Amendment.

But we already knew that. The purpose of the free press clause of the First Amendment was to keep an eye on people in power and maintain a check on corruption. Given the cutbacks in traditional media, bloggers have taken up the slack, serving as watchdogs with attitude. And of course, traditional reporters now blog daily, and prominent bloggers show up in traditional media.

Yet we still see a condescending and uninformed attitude from some lawmakers and judges who seem not to understand that digital and social media deserve the same respect as newspapers, magazines and broadcasters. There is still resistance to including bloggers in a federal shield law, and as recently as 2012 a federal court judge concluding that “liking” a Facebook page was not protected free speech, a flawed decision overturned in September.

Speech doesn’t get much more free than blogs and comments on websites, and long-established principles protecting opinion and hyperbole help to keep it that way. In this case, the Ninth Circuit upheld a lower court’s decision to toss out other libel claims against Cox, despite her assertions that her targets engaged in corruption, fraud, deceit, money laundering, harassment and illegal activity. She called them immoral “evil doers” and “thugs” and alleged that a hit man had been hired to kill her.  The appellate court concluded that Cox’s post were so outrageous that no one would take them seriously and these hyperbolic attacks couldn’t be the basis of a lawsuit. Apparently it also helps to name your site “obsidianfinancesucks.com.”

The decision in a nutshell: Bloggers saying libelous things about private citizens concerning  public matters can only be sued if they’re negligent, and if you do decide to attack someone online, make sure you go over the top.

Ironically, the federal court’s decision protecting bloggers was based on Gertz v. Welch, a landmark Supreme Court case now in its 40th anniversary year. In lieu of cake and candles, we have a brand new case applying the case’s landmark decision to the most contemporary of media.

As abusive and derisive as some bloggers may be, they’re direct descendants of the first generation of Americans, who used pamphlets and politically-driven newspapers to attack their political rivals.  It was then that the nation’s founders ratified the First Amendment, paving the way for robust discussion of public issues, regardless of medium. That’s something worth celebrating.

(Thus column was first published in USA TODAY.)

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