Blogging and Libel

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USA Today has a must-read for anyone blogging these days. There are an increasing number of lawsuits being filed against blogs and bloggers. Some of these are brought for no other reason than to silence the blogger. Others are brought on by completely irresponsible behavior by the blogger or bloggers in question.

Rafe Banks, a lawyer in Georgia, got involved in a nasty dispute with a client over how to defend him on a drunken-driving charge. The client, David Milum, fired Banks and demanded that the lawyer refund a $3,000 fee. Banks refused.

Milum eventually was acquitted. Ordinarily, that might have been the last Banks ever heard about his former client. But then Milum started a blog.

In May 2004, Banks was stunned to learn that Milum's blog was accusing the lawyer of bribing judges on behalf of drug dealers. At the end of one posting, Milum wrote: "Rafe, don't you wish you had given back my $3,000 retainer?"

Banks, saying the postings were false, sued Milum. And last January, Milum became the first blogger in the USA to lose a libel suit, according to the Media Law Resource Center in New York, which tracks litigation involving bloggers. Milum was ordered to pay Banks $50,000.

The case reflected how blogs — short for web logs, the burgeoning, freewheeling Internet forums that give people the power to instantly disseminate messages worldwide — increasingly are being targeted by those who feel harmed by blog attacks. In the past two years, more than 50 lawsuits stemming from postings on blogs and website message boards have been filed across the nation. The suits have spawned a debate over how the "blogosphere" and its revolutionary impact on speech and publishing might change libel law.

Legal analysts say the lawsuits are challenging a mind-set that has long surrounded blogging: that most bloggers essentially are "judgment-proof" because they — unlike traditional media such as newspapers, magazines and television outlets — often are ordinary citizens who don't have a lot of money. Recent lawsuits by Banks and others who say they have had their reputations harmed or their privacy violated have been aimed not just at cash awards but also at silencing their critics.

"Bloggers didn't think they could be subject to libel," says Eric Robinson, a Media Law Resource Center attorney. "You take what is on your mind, type it and post it."

There is a lot here that should be read if you blog. Or even if you leave comments on blogs. The AP Stylebook has an up-to-date section on libel that should make it one thing a blogger should keep handy. You can get access on-line or buy a hard copy. There are also several websites that offer primers on libel law, but take those with the requisite amount of caution. Just keep in mind this quote from Robert Cox, one of the founders of the Media Bloggers Association, the group formed to help bloggers in legal trouble:

Robert Cox, founder and president of the Media Bloggers Association, which has 1,000 members, says the recent wave of lawsuits means that bloggers should bone up on libel law. "It hasn't happened yet, but soon, there will be a blogger who is successfully sued and who loses his home," he says. "That will be the shot heard round the blogosphere."

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One Response to Blogging and Libel

  1. I’ve always told people who asked me where I draw the line that “it better stand up in court against libel and slander, and you damn well better be willing to stand on a street corner and start swinging to defend what you said passes the first two tests.”

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