It's Still A Bad Idea To Commit Libel On Your Blog

from the be-careful dept

It's taken some time, but courts seem to be coming around to the idea that there's no reason to think of bloggers as being distinct from journalists in terms of what rights they have. Last year, the California Appeals overturned a lower court's ruling that a site posting Apple trade secrets did not have the right to protect its sources. Well, with rights come responsibilities, as some are now finding out. In Georgia, an appeals court upheld a $50,000 judgment against a blogger for libeling his former lawyer. The blogger was angry that his lawyer refused to return $3,000 to him after he removed that lawyer from a DUI case. So, he started attacking the lawyer on his blog, accusing him of bribing judges on behalf of a drug dealing operation. It's pretty obvious that this wouldn't fly in a traditional publication, and blogs are no exceptions. What's interesting -- and a positive indication that blogs aren't the legal novelty they once were -- is that the case seemed to be decided on the same grounds as any other libel case. The jury pondered issues such as whether the statements were indeed defamatory, and whether the defamed individual was a public figure or not. Neither the jury nor the court of appeals seemed interested in the longstanding issue of whether one could commit libel on a blog. As for the blogger, who is described as a local political gadfly, he seemed unrepentant, claiming that the trial was a sham and that he planned to "...let the public know it."


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Davis Freeberg, Mar 9th, 2007 @ 5:39pm

    you mean he allegedly libeled his lawyer right ;)

    It sounds fair to me. If you can't spread nasty rumors by slandering someone, you shouldn't be allowed to make things up and post them online either. Bloggers have responsibilities just like everyone else. I'm not sure that I'd ever want to consider myself a journalist, but with the power of the free press, you also inherit the responsibilities.

     

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  2.  
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    Joe Smith, Mar 9th, 2007 @ 6:34pm

    Diminished capacity

    My observation is that the people who run around posting things like that tend to suffer some form of mental illness. The blogger should have defended on the basis that he was too crazy to know any better.

     

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  3.  
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    bill, Mar 9th, 2007 @ 6:51pm

    HOW DARE THE BOTH OF YOU. FREE SPEECH MEANS THE "FREEDOM" TO SAY WHATEVER YOU PLEASE WITHOUT CONSEQUENCES. THEY ARE WORDS.. THAT'S IT. DIDN'T YOUR MOMMA TEACH YOU "STICKS AND STONES MAY BREAK MY BONES.. BUT WORDS CAN NEVER HURT ME" YOU'RE REMOVING FREEDOM BUT NOT TOLERATING WHAT PEOPLE SAY. IF YOU DON'T LIKE WHAT SOMEONE HAS GOT TO SAY, WALK AWAY! AND NO ONE IS MENTALLY ILL FOR BEING DISSATISFIED WITH A SERVICE. LAST TIME I CHECK WE WERE ENTITLED TO OPINIONS AS WELL. SO FUCK OFF YOU COMMY BASTARDS. GO START A DICTAITORSHIP IF YOU DON'T LIKE YOUR FREEDOM THEN GET THE FUCK OUTTA THIS COUNTRY.

     

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  4.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 9th, 2007 @ 6:56pm

    Re: Caps Lock

    Makes you look like an idiot.

     

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  5.  
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    lol @ caps, Mar 9th, 2007 @ 7:02pm

    BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ YOU LOSE!

     

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  6.  
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    Charles Griswold, Mar 9th, 2007 @ 7:47pm

    Re:

    FREE SPEECH MEANS THE "FREEDOM" TO SAY WHATEVER YOU PLEASE WITHOUT CONSEQUENCES. THEY ARE WORDS.

    You, sir, are either incredibly misinformed or an idiot. I'm leaning toward the latter.
    YOU'RE REMOVING FREEDOM BUT NOT TOLERATING WHAT PEOPLE SAY. [ . . . ] SO [redacted] OFF YOU COMMY [sic] BASTARDS.

    I see. You're not just an idiot, you're a hypocritical idiot. Nice.

     

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  7.  
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    thinlizzy151, Mar 9th, 2007 @ 9:28pm

    RE:freedom of speech

    I don't know about anyone's Mom, but Sandburg said that "Words wear hard boots". That's why we have libel laws. Words can and do hurt. slander can ruin people's standing in the community, their careers, their lives. It should not be necessary to have to point this out. Freedom of speech does not, and never has, meant that you can say whatever the hell you damn please. Actions do have consequences.

     

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  8.  
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    Scott, Mar 10th, 2007 @ 12:23am

    Hm

    All of this talk about libel and freedom of speech...if you put it in a newspaper it's libel, because you make a profit off of it. If you put it in a magazine it's libel, because you make a profit off of it. If you put it in a blog it becomes an opinion. Whether or not the person is an outstanding community leader or the lowest street scum makes no difference. If you start accusing people of libel because of a blog then essentially you are robbing them of their opinion and the right to think what you will.

     

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  9.  
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    |333173|3|_||3, Mar 10th, 2007 @ 1:04am

    More like a Poster

    Blogs would possibly be more like sticking up a poster on a wall, in that its there publicly for people to read and stick up thier own stuff next to, and you can put ads on it, but you are not selling it as fact like you are a newspaper.
    OTOH, if he said that the lawyer was involved in crime, and could not at least provide some sort of evidence for this, then he should be punished, since a bad reputation could damage his laywer's career.

     

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  10.  
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    Peter, Mar 10th, 2007 @ 3:13am

    Libel

    What is the definition of libel?
    The classic definition is:"a publication without justification or lawful excuse which is calculated to injure the reputation of another by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule."
    (Parke, B. in Parmiter v. Coupland (1840) GM&W 105 at 108)
    We as adults must assume responsibility for our actions, that is a very essential part of living in a society. While we Americans enjoy the right of Freedom of Speech, that does not give us the right to use that freedom to injure another person.

     

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  11.  
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    Caffeine Kitty, Mar 10th, 2007 @ 6:03am

    Re:

    The freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose.

     

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  12.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 10th, 2007 @ 2:33pm

    Re: Hm

    All of this talk about libel and freedom of speech...if you put it in a newspaper it's libel, because you make a profit off of it. If you put it in a magazine it's libel, because you make a profit off of it. If you put it in a blog it becomes an opinion. Whether or not the person is an outstanding community leader or the lowest street scum makes no difference. If you start accusing people of libel because of a blog then essentially you are robbing them of their opinion and the right to think what you will.

    Uhh, no. What is the distinction between an online version of a magaxine or paper and a blog? Perhaps a name, but even that distinction can easily be blurred for very popular blogs. The point is that since there's no legal "certification" of publications as "fact sources" the test for libel is based on the publication of damaging statements in a public medium, which posting to an open blog would certainly constitute.

    As internet denizens I think we WANT to believe that commenting on blogs comes without consequence (aside from the occasiional flame), but I am glad that the courts are saying that isn't the case. In the future, in order for accurate and less restricted access to information, you need to have a legal "penalty" for those who produce intentionally incorrect and malicious content that was not meant as satire.

     

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  13.  
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    bill, Mar 10th, 2007 @ 4:47pm

    let freedom ring!

    talk is cheap! and actions do speak louder than words. however, if the lawyer's career has been hurt due to a comment then ok go claim some damages. But before the fact trying to sue? that's not the way to do it. you absolutely cannot rob people of their right to free speech! give me absolute freedom or give me death!!!!!

     

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  14.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Mar 10th, 2007 @ 6:10pm

    Re: let freedom ring!

    talk is cheap! and actions do speak louder than words. however, if the lawyer's career has been hurt due to a comment then ok go claim some damages. But before the fact trying to sue? that's not the way to do it. you absolutely cannot rob people of their right to free speech! give me absolute freedom or give me death!!!!!

    Bill,

    Did you even read the link to the case summary? Clearly the lawyer didn't sue until after the comments were posted, so he did sue after the fact as you suggested. Don't get me wrong, my heart isn't tender for lawyers as a rule, but the defendant in this case went so far as to dare the lawyer to sue him, which he did:

    "Rafe Banks will never make one single move against me or this Web site," Milum gloated on the site, "because he knows that we have the witnesses."

    That takes a special bread of cahones, or stupidity, to dare a lawyer to take legal action against you. The defendant seems to be a very vengful, morally questionable guy who got what he deserved. This isn't the case of some guy fighting against government wrongdoing or something (which is clearly 1st amendment speech), but a DUI defendent that didn't like the services rendered by his attorney and decided to take a very cheap and apparently made up swipe at the guy.

     

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  15.  
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    Context, Mar 10th, 2007 @ 11:09pm

    it's all semantics really, to say on your Blog, "I was not happy with what I paid for, so and so seems like the type to do unlawful things " is NOT the same as saying "So and so sucks and he breaks the law too..." one is Opinion, the other is Libel. it all depends on how you phrase it on your blog. you are always free to express yourself, as long as you make it clear what you are expressing.
    To make personal attacks on someone is easy to do as well, as long as you are not stating it as fact. "So and so seemed rude to me and I felt cheated" "So and so is always rude and cheats everyone."
    there is a difference

     

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  16.  
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    Tears of laughter, Mar 10th, 2007 @ 11:17pm

    Re: Bill

    Please look up the definition to "oxymoron" it truly applies to your acerbic and verbose comments :)

     

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  17.  
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    Paul, Mar 11th, 2007 @ 7:36am

    Re: let freedom ring!

    Absolute freedom or death? Well, I hope you are looking forward to death because if you haven't realized, absolute freedom is impossible under a government with laws. A law restrains your freedom, though its in place to protect you from hindering the freedom of another. Your freedom is restrained when it interferes with the freedom of another. You can't go in a theatre and start yelling "FIRE FIRE FIRE FIRE" due to the possibility that the little prank can cause injury or even death from the panic that would ensue. Freedom of speech has rules so that it doesn't harm others. Words are very powerful. Words can change the world. Actions speak louder, but words say more.

     

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  18.  
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    Tin Ear, Mar 11th, 2007 @ 11:01am

    The Way I See It.

    It seems that you are all missing the point. The blogger in this case was busted for Driving Under the Influence, and fired his lawyer in mid-case. Then he has the audacity to demand his money back from the lawyer, who duly earned his fee while under the employ of the defendant. He had no case to do so in the first place. The man had worked, he had been paid, and that was that. The fact that he was fired halfway through the case doesn't mean that the defendant is entitled to a fee refund.

    So, the defendant writes that the lawyer is a so-and-so and won't pay him back. That is the original wrong here. The man was stupid enough to expose his own stupidity in his blog, and should be told to just STFU and go home and sulk.

     

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  19.  
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    billg, Mar 11th, 2007 @ 1:30pm

    It's the Message, Not the Medium

    I've always been surprised that some people apparently think the tool you use to publish something has a bearing on whether or not you committed libel.

    If you consider the potential audience, a blog is about as public as you can get.

     

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  20.  
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    Enrico Suarve, Mar 12th, 2007 @ 3:19am

    Defending lawyers again ;0(

    For the second time in a week I feel forced to defend a lawyer on Techdirt - arrg

    Seems to me if you are going to publish anything in the public domain, whether that be a pamphlet, a sign, on the internet or whatever that libel laws apply

    Freedom of speech is great and allows you to say things like "I think this guy sounds suspicious...". However as several posts have pointed out it does not let you make unfounded accusations such as "This guy is doing xxx..."

    While the distinction between stating an opinion and stating a fact may seem to be semantics, it is huge. Put it this way - would you be more careful around a snake if someone stated "I don't think its dangerous" or, if they said "I know it's not dangerous" (and yes I would be careful either way but one of the above would be more alarming)

    Basically publish and be damned - freedom of speech is great, but you have to bear in mind the injured party in this case has a right not to be unjustly defamed

    Or as Caffeine Kitty put it in post #11 - The freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose. Great quote by the way - I'll have to remember it ;0)

     

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  21.  
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    Kevin Doran, Mar 12th, 2007 @ 4:21am

    'Freedom'?

    What country are you referring to?

     

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