Court Fines Blogger $1.8 Million Over Defamation… Despite Many Questions

from the this-is-not-good dept

We recently posted a link to a libel guide for bloggers, recognizing that many bloggers don’t realize their comments are subject to defamation laws. That said, however, it’s still quite rare to find a blogger found guilty of libel in court. Mark writes in to alert us to one such case that raises a number of very troubling questions: a court in South Carolina awarded a $1.8 million libel judgment against a blogger, despite questions about whether the guy in question actually wrote the blog post. The court ruled in summary judgment, which really should only occur if the facts are not in question — but they are very much in question. The guy who was accused claims he didn’t write the content (even if he agrees with it). The blog itself appears to be a semi-anonymous group blog, so there’s no clear indication that the guy being fined actually wrote the content. You would think that this fact, alone, would preclude a summary judgment and require a trial. There were also issues with actually making sure that the guy was given proper notice about the lawsuit and the court proceedings, so he was not present at some of the hearings. As the link above notes, this ruling is quite chilling if you write a blog.

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Comments on “Court Fines Blogger $1.8 Million Over Defamation… Despite Many Questions”

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NotBob says:

Re: Re:

(T)his ruling is quite chilling if you write a blog…that defames another person, precisely the same rule that has applied to other forms of communication for many, many years.

Not really. It was a summary judgment that appears to be lacking in hard evidence. That’s the chilling part. It isn’t that he broke the rules, it is that he may have broken the rules so he has to pay.

AndyB (profile) says:

This should not be seen as chilling

This story has absolutely nothing to do with a blogger held liable for something he may not have said and everything to do with a bad decision to try and represent yourself, failing to follow the procedures of the court and paying the price. This is civil procedure law, not libel law.

The guy did not respond to a discovery request asking him to admit or deny that he was the author. When that happens judges can and often do assume that the results would have been adverse to the non-responding party. He then failed to show up for the summary judgment hearing.

He claims he didn’t receive “notice” of the request or hearing, but it seems like he expected to be served with notice formally every time he needed to do something. It doesn’t work like that.

Finally got wise and hired a lawyer, but unless he has a very good reason for not responding to discovery or show up he’s probably screwed. It sucks that justice in the US requires the cost of a lawyer even if you are clearly not guilty, but such is the system.

The only takeaway from this story is DON’T BE YOUR OWN LAWYER.

Michael says:

ready AndyB’s comment. that goes the same for the writer of the article. don’t comment on legal issues if you have no idea what you are talking about. you don’t get to google what a summary judgment is, and start criticizing the courts for incorrectly applying it. you don’t know what the facts of the case are, and you certainly don’t know the law. don’t think you can spend 15 minutes reading wikipedia, and think you know as much as a law student who has spent the last three years reading cases. you are not that smart, and you certainly aren’t as knowledgeable as judges to say they’ve incorrectly applied the law.

certainly, free speech has not been affected or even chilled, because we still get stupid shit being said by reporters and commentators.

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

ready AndyB’s comment. that goes the same for the writer of the article. don’t comment on legal issues if you have no idea what you are talking about.

I’m actually quite familiar with what I’m talking about, and I’d suggest not outright insulting your hosts with unsubstantiated accusations.

The folks who wrote the original report, at Citizen Media Law Project ARE LAWYERS. Are you suggesting they got their information off of Wikipedia?

ou don’t get to google what a summary judgment is, and start criticizing the courts for incorrectly applying it. you don’t know what the facts of the case are, and you certainly don’t know the law.

I didn’t get the info from google, I got it from Citizen Media Law Project. Again, are you accusing them of not knowing the law?

don’t think you can spend 15 minutes reading wikipedia

I’m not sure why you keep repeating this lie. Just because you disagree with the analysis doesn’t mean that it came from Google or Wikipedia. Isn’t it just possible that others disagree with your analysis.

certainly, free speech has not been affected or even chilled, because we still get stupid shit being said by reporters and commentators.

I’d argue otherwise (obviously). Whenever you get a blogger getting fined $1.8 million for statements he claims he didn’t even make, it’s going to have a chilling effect, even if the ruling is on procedural grounds due to the guy’s own stupidity.

I stand by the post, and I would suggest that rather than insult your host you consider that maybe, just maybe, they actually do know what they’re talking about before you attack them for being idiots. It doesn’t make you look smart to spout off like that.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Devolving...

Getting back to the real issues, the respondent did fail to respond to discovery motions and did not attend hearings. He said (claimed) that the various notices were sent to an address that did not receive mail (from the SunNews April 11, 2009).

Regardless of whether the address to which the notices were sent was a valid address for “receiving mail,” the court found, properly, that the respondent had de facto waived his right to a plea and a defense, and summary judgement was properly found.

Donald Wizeman can appeal the decision, and I presume he will, arguing that the court sent its notices to a correct address, but one that does not “receive mail.” Hopefully, he will advise the court of an address that does “receive mail” and be sure that whereever the court got the other address is changed. After all, why do you have an address provided somewhere if it does not “receive mail.”

Regardless of these issues, the fact is that this ruling is not chilling at all, unless you take procedural issues as chilling. People are sued for libel, slander and defamation regularly. Rarely do courts find for the plaintiffs, because the standard for a finding of defamation is quite high. However, when you never respond to any of the court’s requests for information, you will lose. More broadly, in any court case where you fail to respond to the court’s requests for information, you will lose. That too, happens every day. However, until today I had never seen what amounted to a default judgement be referred to as a chilling effect.

Alan Shore says:

Oftentimes, people read comments on websites and don’t catch on to subtle humor that runs within an online community and take things at face value. Sometimes posts are created in a moment of inebriation or otherwise. This itself is somewhat sad.

Rush Limbaugh once said to a caller:
“You’re Offended? How are you offended? You see, when you take offense to what something I say, that means you are willingly giving power away to me. I then have power over you. You’re no longer in control. Listen, I will never give that power away to something as silly as being “offended”. I will never feel offended. I don’t care what other people say. The question you have to ask is what how do you prove them wrong”

Libel cases are often the solution to the weak. Those that can’t or unable to direct their energy to fixing the problem that was brought to the forefront.

In cases like this, the offenders often disappear into the night as the meek often do, but someone has to get angry about it.

The economic downturn has affected many people. But a law firm who sued a man who owned an ad agency, and couldn’t afford a lawyer at his own trial is absolutely beyond comprehension.

No doubt, Donald Wizeman will probably never see more than $500 of the $1.8M judgment.

He’ll probably file bankruptcy first. Hope Don is happy with his destruction.

Tip 1: If you can’t afford a lawyer, um, lower your expectations.

What an incredible story.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Blogging libels

Summary judgment usually means a party failed to show up. It is really a way to “get their attention”, and is normally not “stare decisis”, that is, case law.
Since the article admits the person involved did not always show up, the judgment is likely something that will force a change in attitude, rather than a trend.
Who knows? There isn’t enough depth here to tell.

Joanne says:

Blogging libels

The blogger owned said blog and according to TOS is responsible for the content. If it is defamatory – he is liable.

Freedom of speech is one thing but it doesn’t cover throwing mud on others because you disagree with them.

We have rappers who interupt award ceremonies, Representatives who speak out of turn and call the President a Liar during a speach and a Tennis Player who was a sore looser and reacted badly.

Our society has accepted the “Jerry Springer” show mentality. There is no journalism any more – but yellow journalism.

Those of us raised with manners and have some sort of sense of how to behave applaud this type of decission. There is defamation all over the Internet – hope this makes Google and others take notice too.

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