In the age of the internet, every individual may have their own personal printing press, but that doesn't mean that the same legal protections afforded to journalists are always available to bloggers.
Something that Crystal Cox, an Oregon-based blogger who is facing a $2.5m judgment for publishing information an investment firm alleged was defamatory, knows all too well.
Cox's case is detailed by Seattle Weekly, which explains:
...Cox had argued that her writing was a mixture of facts, commentary and opinion (like a million other blogs on the web) and moved to have the case dismissed. Dismissed it wasn't, however, and after throwing out all but one of the blog posts cited by Obsidian Financial, the judge ruled that [a] single post was indeed defamatory because it was presented, essentially, as more factual in tone than her other posts, and therefore a reasonable person could conclude it was factual.
Cox, who represented herself in court, argued that the assertions the judge ruled to be defamatory are true, but that the information backing them up was provided to her by a whistle blower.
Cox, believing herself to be a journalist, should therefore be entitled to protection under media shield laws designed to ensure that journalists aren't compelled to reveal the identify of their sources.
Unfortunately, the media shield law in Oregon doesn't explicitly include bloggers in its list of covered individuals, apparently leaving the judge no choice but to find against her.
Cox unsurprisingly plans to appeal the ruling, stating "this should matter to everyone who writes on the Internet." But there are a few interesting points here for anyone involved in blogging and media:
- When it comes to protections afforded to journalists, your mileage may vary. The laws that apply to 'bloggers' when it comes to allegations like defamation can vary greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so it's worthwhile for anyone blogging or engaging in new media to research the laws that may apply to them based on their location.
- Publishing on the internet is cheap, but hiring an attorney isn't. While the strength of Cox's case isn't known, she probably didn't create any advantages for herself by representing herself in court. Which raises the question: just how much can and should bloggers and new media organizations publish if they're not able to retain legal counsel?
- Laws will change, but anonymous sources are tricky. Increasingly, laws will be modified (and re-interpreted) so that the blogger versus journalist debate is inconsequential. But bloggers and new media outlets should not expect that this will simply give them the ability to publish anything and claim that an anonymous source backs it up, escaping liability for false and defamatory statements in the process. Here in fact, several people have pointed out that even if Oregon's media shield law was applicable to Cox, other laws would prevent that from being the sole defense to a defamation charge.