Posted on December 3, 2007
Libel suits, blogs, and comments
At the workshop I led on Saturday (about journalist blogs), someone raised a question about libel while we were discussing non-editing of blogs. I did a few searches and found some interesting information.
According to the Citizen Media Law Project, at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, the blogger cannot be held responsible for comments posted to his or her blog. Cited was Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act.
The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a good FAQ about Online Defamation Law.
One of our grad students has done some research about related cases (not published yet, so I don’t want to give away his case law), and so far the courts have acted wisely, showing a clear understanding that some libel suits are filed with the sole intention of silencing the speaker (chilling free speech). When the posted comment has been deemed by the courts to be purely an opinion rather than a statement of fact, in more than one case, the court has dismissed the lawsuit.
The Media Law Resource Center has a page that lists “legal cases in the United States in which bloggers have been sued for libel and related claims.” I searched for the word newspaper and could not find a case in which any blog affiliated with a newspaper has been named in a libel suit.
One part of the concern is whether a blogger will receive the same protections as a journalist if named in a libel suit.
Another concern is whether a journalist-blogger — specifically, a full-time paid journalist blogging for the news organization that pays him or her — will one day be named in a legitimate libel suit.
The news organization represents a fatter cow for the plaintiff to try to slaughter. The lonely blogger probably doesn’t have a lot of cash to pay out, if he or she loses the legal battle. But some libel suits are actually about reputation rather than money. And as I already said, some libel suits are just trying to shut someone up — such as a whistle-blower.
Under U.S. law, truth is an absolute defense. That is, if you can prove that what you wrote is true, you are not at fault. However, as the EFF guide says, “the truth may be difficult and expensive to prove.”
Moreover, many other countries’ laws do not afford the same protection — to journalists or to anyone else.
Disclaimer: Obviously I am not a lawyer, so do not take this as legal advice!