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Blogs Enter Courts, Begin Losing

Jason Lee Miller
Staff Writer
Published: 2006-10-11

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The word "blog" may have been the word of the year in 2004, but 2006 has been the year it was officially recorded in court records. January saw the first successful libel suit against a blogger, and September saw an $11 million defamation judgment against a forum poster.

The court system is swiftly putting to rest the notion that people can say whatever they like about others as long as they say it in cyberspace.

Speech is free as long as it is true, not including legal fees, and you can prove it. Otherwise, sharp tongues will cut into your budget.

Case A, just because we can:

Though Louisianan Carey Bock could not afford legal counsel in the wake of the Hurricane Katrina (she was after all homeless at the time action was taken), and thus didn't appear in court to defend herself, that didn't stop a Florida jury from making an $11 million example of her.

After becoming dissatisfied with the services of Sue Scheff, Bock called her a crook, a con artist and a fraud on an online message board that discussed the type of child services Scheff offered. Those four words cost Bock about $3 million a piece, a bill she can't pay - a bill Scheff and the jury knew she couldn't pay, just to send a message.

Case B and C, don't talk smack about lawyers:

If you're having a dispute about the quality of your attorney's representation, it's best to seek more traditional means of conflict resolution. Blogging that said attorney is bribing judges on behalf of drug dealers, out of spite and without proof, could cost you $50,000.

Ladies, if several of you have dated the same lawyer, an online message board is not the place to charge him with homosexuality and spreading venereal diseases. Keep it in the women's restroom if you don't want to be sued for libel.

For a complete list of libel lawsuits against bloggers, and their outcomes, visit MediaLaw.org's running tally of Law in the Blogosphere.

A Quick Guide To Not-as-free-as-you-thought-it-was Speech

1. So far, judges have upheld language in the Communications Decency Act stating that website and message board (and likely blog) operators are not liable for comments made by a third party. There have since been several "John Doe lawsuits," where offended parties seek anonymous commentators in these online areas.

2. Opinions are protected speech. Lies are not. To illustrate this, we turn to 1980's prop comic, Gallagher:

"What can you say in America? Can I say Priscilla Presley has a big butt? Will I have to prove it in a court of law? Hey, Priscilla, you wanna back it on in here, huh? If she can fit in the witness chair we'll drop, Your Honor."

3. Yes, you can be held liable for libel through implication. You don't have to say it directly - even if it's a collection of true statements leading the reader (or listener) to a damaging conclusion. Judges, however, are reluctant to hear libel cases centering on true statements.

4. A podcast counts the same as print. Though slander is much harder to prove in court, audio is considered a recording, just like print, which turns slander in libel.

5. Though publishers are protected from third party comments when it comes to blogs, wikis, forums, et cetera, a medium like a podcast is different. Podcast guests are selected interviews, edited for content, and publishers are responsible for what their guests say. So make sure you research before publishing to either back up or refute a guest's remarks.

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About the Author:
Jason L. Miller is a staff writer for WebProNews covering technology and business.

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