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Bloggers, public have First Amendment protection – US court

Published time: January 18, 2014 08:24
Reuters/Susana Vera

Reuters/Susana Vera

A federal appeals court has ruled that bloggers and the general public have the same protection of the First Amendment as journalists when sued for defamation. Should the issue be of public concern, the claimant has to prove negligence to win the case.

"It's not a special right to the news media," he said. "So it's a good thing for bloggers and citizen journalists and others," Gregg Leslie, of the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, told AP.

The federal court’s ruling came after a new trial in a defamation case: an Oregon bankruptcy trustee was the plaintiff against a Montana blogger who wrote on the Internet that the trustee criminally mishandled a bankruptcy case.

In 2011, Crystal Cox, a blogger from Montana was sued by attorney Kevin Padrick and his company, Obsidian Finance Group LLC, following her posts disclosing the alleged fraud, corruption, money-laundering and other criminal activities carried out by Obsidian. It should be noted that Padrick is not a public figure, so the facts exposed by Cox couldn’t inflict reputational damage on him.

Padrick and Obsidian won the case, and were granted $2.5 million.

Cox addressed the court of appeals, and was joined by UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who found out about her case and offered her to represent her as an attorney in court.

"Because Cox's blog post addressed a matter of public concern, even assuming that Gertz is limited to such speech, the district court should have instructed the jury that it could not find Cox liable for defamation unless it found that she acted negligently," Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote for a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

"We hold that liability for a defamatory blog post involving a matter of public concern cannot be imposed without proof of fault and actual damages," he added.

Eugene Volokh, who wrote an article on the issue, stated that the case ensures that bloggers have the same First Amendment rights as professional media workers.

"There had been similar precedents before concerning advocacy groups, other writers and book authors. This follows a fairly well established chain of precedents. I believe it is the first federal appeals court level ruling that applies to bloggers," Volokh said.

The plaintiff, however, disagreed with the decision and was disappointed with the ruling.

"Ms. Cox's false and defamatory statements have caused substantial damage to our clients, and we are evaluating our options with respect to the court's decision," AP reported Steven Wilker, an attorney for Obsidian and Padrick, as saying.

The issue of defining the term “journalist” has been on the table for a long time.

In 1974, the Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc. case marked the beginning of the debate on the level of state protection for public or private figures.

In September 2013, the US Senate committee voted 13-to-5 early Thursday to approve S.987, a bill meant to protect members of the press from government intrusion and “maintain the free flow of information to the public.”

The legislation covered bloggers and freelancers both paid and unpaid who work with the "primary intent to investigate events and procure material in order to disseminate to the public news or information."