Libel laws apply to bloggers, as well as traditional journalists
A seasoned newspaper editor a couple years ago said most bloggers, at least those who try to deal in news and opinion, are much like high school journalists. They don’t quite yet have a grasp of what they are dealing with, they have no concept yet of the responsibility that comes along with the privilege of writing for a mass audience. Most of them are much more interested in opinion, usually their own, than they are in facts.
To that I might add that eventually, if they stay with it, they will have a real-world experience, possibly painful, that teaches them what all of us who have toiled under the banner of the First Amendment have had to learn at one time or another. Yes, the First Amendment is a glorious tool, and we are all truly thankful for it, but it, like everything else, is far from absolute.
My editor friend’s opinion may have been harsh. There are bloggers doing good work. And there are bloggers libeling people on a daily basis.
Bloggers who think they can write whatever they want, do so at great risk.
They may not have some of the protections that bona fide reporters use. “Shield” laws, which protect reporters from revealing confidential sources, are now on the books in 39 states (including Colorado) and the District of Columbia.
Blogger Crystal Cox was sued for defamation by the founder of an investment group after she accused him, not very artfully, of acting illegally and unethically. She tried to stand behind Oregon’s shield law, but a judge said it didn’t protect her because she was not affiliated with a “newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network or cable television system.”
Good for the judge. Here’s a sample of the product Cox produces: “Jeff Manning of the Oregonian protects Kevin Padrick of Obsidian Finance Group by his jaded version of the so-called news, without documents, videos, investigations and simply talking to people and then taking their words through the Jeff Manning shredding where they come out as convoluted mud to sling, ‘Paint Splatter’ in all directions to distract readers from what his crony buddy Kevin Padrick of Obsidian Finance Group is really doing in the real world.”
I read a great deal of her work, and nowhere did I find any real reporting. Nothing in anything I read backed up any of her assertions.
Yes, the First Amendment gives her the right to publish. Other laws give Kevin Padrick the right to sue for defamation, which he did and won, to the tune of $2.5 million. Manning could probably do likewise.
Shield laws have kept many reporters from going to jail for contempt. I can’t help but wonder whether Cox, who calls herself an “investigative blogger,” fully understood the consequences when she offered someone anonymity in her “investigation” of Summit Accommodators. Did she know she could go to jail if the judge decided she wasn’t protected by the shield law? Did she know that, even if she was protected, she could still be found to have written something defamatory.
Did she know a jury could come back with a $2.5 million judgment against her? Did she care? Apparently not.
“See, when you sue me it ends up getting tons more media, I mean ‘Real Media,’” she wrote. Then she added there was no way she was going to pay any of the judgment since she doesn’t have any money.
I’m sure that’s true. She’s not likely to ever have any. The judgment may never be paid, but someday she may learn it still will cost her when she applies for a loan and gets denied because of an outstanding judgment against her, or when she applies for a job and doesn’t get hired because of it.
Cox, though, could be the poster child for my friend the editor, who thinks the blogosphere is full of juveniles. What’s troubling is there are people who think she deserves every protection The New York Times got in the Pentagon Papers case.
I don’t know whether Ms. Cox is still in school. She should be. She has much to learn.