Court Says Bloggers are Journalists Too
Freedom of the Press has always, of course, applied to traditional journalists. If someone accuses a journalist in say, The Washington Post, or the New York Times, or even a small town newspaper of defamation, and the issue is of public concern, the plaintiffs have to prove that there was negligence or worse in order to win damages. Essentially a plaintiff would have to prove that a journalist wrote their story without properly checking out their sources, or some other negligent behavior. If they cannot prove that a reporter didn’t do their due diligence, they cannot be found guilty. This was established by a 1974 Supreme Court case, Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.
For years, this 1974 case sufficed as protecting journalists, because official media was really the only kind of media that existed. There was radio, newspapers, and TV, and all of those were mostly composed of people who had journalistic training and were part of a larger company. But with the advent of the internet, everyone can have a blog. In fact, if I so decided, I could go get a free WordPress blog right now and start writing just a few minutes later. And out of that prevalence of individual-driven media came the question: does this freedom of the press also apply to the informal and individual press?
Last week, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the same standards that apply to journalists in print media also apply to bloggers and anyone else. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press member Gregg Leslie said, “it’s not a special right to the news media. So it’s a good thing for bloggers and citizen journalists and others.”
The case came from a Montana blogger named Crystal L. Cox. In a blog post a few years ago, Cox stated that Obsidian Finance Group and its founder had committed fraud. So Obsidian Finance Group’s co-founder Kevin Padrick sued Cox. During the first trial, Cox lost the case and was ordered to pay the plaintiffs $2.5 million in damages. Cox did not deny that what she reported may have been false, just that she did not do it out of negligence, the same standard that a print reporter would have been held to. With this latest appeal, the 9th District Court agreed with Cox.
The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others’ writings, or tried to get both sides of a story. As the Supreme Court has accurately warned, a First Amendment distinction between the institutional press and other speakers is unworkable.” They went on to cite cases in which individual speakers have been granted First Amendment rights, despite not being a part of the established press. For example, the First Amendment rights of authors have often been protected, regardless of their training, background, or affiliations.
This is very good news for anyone who has a blog or even a desire to post things in an individual capacity on their social network. It could also go a far way for advocacy groups that work unofficially for candidates and their rights to create media alleging things against candidates. It could also have important ramifications for blogging in other lawsuits. For example, if a blogger is treated as a journalist for the purposes of the First Amendment, they could also be treated as a journalist in a matter like protection of sources.
Anneliese Mahoney (@AMahoney8672) is Lead Editor at Law Street and a Connecticut transplant to Washington D.C. She has a Bachelor’s degree in International Affairs from the George Washington University, and a passion for law, politics, and social issues. Contact Anneliese at amahoney@LawStreetMedia.com.
Featured image courtesy of [Jorge Quinteros via Flickr]