Legal Issues

by Mike Masnick

Filed Under:
blogging, libel

A Guide To Libel For Bloggers

from the useful-resource dept

There's a belief out there among some bloggers that they're immune to libel laws. That is simply untrue. While they are likely immune from libel in their comments made by others, things they write themselves are likely to still be open to potential libel lawsuits. Many bloggers don't realize this at all, assuming that "free speech" rights means they can say pretty much whatever they want. And, to some extent, some courts may take into account the nature of the "forum" in which the comments are made -- but by that point (in front of a judge) it's definitely way too late for many people. That's why it's great that the folks over at Public Citizen have put together a nice Guide for Bloggers and Non-Profit Organizations About Writing With Libel in Mind. It's a worthwhile read if you write online.

Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1. identicon
    Zero, Mar 31st, 2009 @ 10:02pm


    Screw em.... I hope I get sued.
    I will call every douche a douche. Like john edward. The biggest douche in the universe. Talks to the dead my ass....

    If I get sued, I will willingly lose, and NOT FUCKING PAY!

    most people don't realize that is an option. Just dont pay if you lose. Fuck em. Being sued is not criminal so they can't send you to jail, so fuck em, just don't pay, and keep calling them a douche.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. identicon
    john doe, Mar 31st, 2009 @ 10:09pm

    Perhaps bloggers should just start using fake names? Then who could people sue over stupid remarks like:
    "Mike Mansick seen doing something somewhere at sometime!"

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. identicon
    Rose M. Welch, Mar 31st, 2009 @ 10:12pm

    Re: Well....

    Good idea, douche!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    The Fake Mike Masnick, Mar 31st, 2009 @ 10:41pm

    Note from the Fake Mike Masnick

    Copyright for 90 years is a good thing and I think we should extend it for another 90 years. Yes, 180 years for copyright sounds about right to me. Go RIAA!

    Besides, if there can be a Fake Steve Jobs, there can be a Fake Mike Masnick.

    Next up, the Fake Weird Harold. ;-)

    April Fools!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Davis Freeberg, Mar 31st, 2009 @ 11:03pm

    I have to say I was a bit disappointed by the link. Considering that it was written for bloggers, it would have been nice to see more quick easy bullet points instead of it sounding like it was a legal doc. Regardless of the format though, some of the advice just isn't practical for most non-profits and bloggers.

    For example, if you can afford to have an attorney review each post before it goes online, then why would you need a guide like this. Most bloggers have limited resources and it would have been nice to get advice that reflected this. Also, in an age where anonymous message board posts and comments can break a story, how are bloggers suppose to tell the difference between "tabloid" sources and "respected" publications. One of my top blog posts last year was sourced from a Doom9 forum posting, could this have exposed me to liability whereas the same article in the New York Times wouldn't? I understand the need to be more cautious with sources you can't identify, but this guide makes no attempt at recognizing the realities of being part of the blogging community. The sphere is built on links, yet we're not supposed to link unless it's to some kind of official report.

    While I realize that libel laws can be harsh and that this guide is designed to create a 100% bullet proof defense against this kind of liability, but I would have rather seen some practical advice on when you might be better off leaving a link out or finding another corroborating source.

    It would also have been nice to see them focus more on how to present an opinion without getting sued, especially since most blogs are 100% opinion. End of the day, it seemed like this info would be of more use to newspapers or professionally run sites then it would be to the vast majority of bloggers who are just normal people interested in sharing their thoughts online.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Shaun Wilson, Mar 31st, 2009 @ 11:39pm

    Necessity of libel laws?

    Libel laws are simply unnecessary - if someone says something false about you you can easily respond these days. At best they will look foolish for not checking their sources, at worst they will be exposed as an outright lier and no-one will trust them ever again.

    It's exactly the same as those people who copy techdirt posts and claim them as their own - as Mike has said when they are found out they take a huge reputation hit, and your reputation is really one of your most valuable resources.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    shanoboy (profile), Apr 1st, 2009 @ 5:47am

    Re: Well....

    Actually, simply calling someone a douche or any other dirty name isn't really grounds for libel (from what I gather from watching Penn & Teller's Bullshit).

    Saying untrue things about someone or making accusations that would hurt their reputation on the other hand is.

    Best bet is to say what you want, but never name or picture the person you're ranting about. If they happen to "know" who you're talking about then great!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2009 @ 5:57am

    Re: Necessity of libel laws?

    However, there may be some people harmed by the statements, even if they are false. There have been a number of dramatic cases where reputations of well-known celebrities have been harmed by libel, and in a few well-publicized cases, the offending party has been required to print just as well-publicized retractions along with a check.

    Libel and slander laws will remain in place as a reminder to people that they should in fact guard their reputation while they still have one.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2009 @ 6:02am

    Re: Re: Well....

    You need to be very careful. Parody and criticism are protected when it comes to a public figure. Regardless of our personal feelings, calling a head of state a douche is criticism. However, printing a statement in your blog about your next door neighbor being a drug dealing, gun-toting, wife-beating douche bag and providing enough information to identify your neighbor would be libel, unless you could prove that your statements are factual.

    Your best bet is to keep your comments within the bounds of protected free speech when it comes to public figures, and when it comes to private individuals be sure you have facts to support you.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. identicon
    lulz, Apr 1st, 2009 @ 10:43am

    Re: Re: Re: Well....

    Then what defines a private citizen and what defines a public figure? is there a popularity rating system to divide people in these categories?

    Too much grey area. Say whatever you want; worry about the consequences later. Rah!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11. icon
    Tina Something (profile), Apr 1st, 2009 @ 11:04am

    My Attorney will be in contact with you Mr Doe.

    I have never met Mr. Masnick nor have I ever been to the Somewhere Inn, much less the greater Pittsburgh area.

    You have impugned my reputation and I intend to seek legal redress.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12. identicon
    mkvf, Apr 1st, 2009 @ 11:55am

    I'd guess most of the people who've commented saying they'd just ignore the risk of libel damages don't write on a regular basis for any sort of audience about anything that matters. Still baffles me how anyone could think it's a good idea to incur hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of dollars of damages; maybe Zero plans to spend his life never earning any money and living in a squat. It would fit his nick.

    What the linked advice doesn't mention is the atrocious state of English libel laws, and English courts' willingness to rule on overseas publications that have only reached a handful of English readers (search "Al Qaeda banker libel" for examples). Some US states have passed laws (NY, IIRC) allowing American writers to countersue locally over cases brought in England that ignore US free speech rights.

    That, like everything surrounding libel, is still going to be a long and costly process, that will wreck your life for years, even if you win.

    If you want to write serious investigative journalism, whatever the venue, you need to bear in mind the risks you face, not just from local courts but from courts around the world.

    If you live in an Engish-speaking country, and you want your local journalists to be able to write freely, you should encourage your local politicians to put pressure on England to rewrite its libel laws.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13. identicon
    Paul Alan Levy, Apr 1st, 2009 @ 12:50pm

    Re: Davis Freeberg's comment

    Davis Freeberg makes a fair point here, but note that the guide was actually written for two different audiences, which we tried to straddle -- both bloggers (less likely to have a lawyer on tap) and smaller non-profits (which might well have a lawyer available although not one specialized in libel work). We do make the point that a non-lawyer libel read is better than no libel read -- that is, review by someone who is not a lawyer but was, at least, not involved in the preparation of the report or blog post.

    Many of the specific issues on which Davis seeks more guidance are covered in greater detail in some of the resources linked at the end of the guide.

    As for writing in prose as opposed to bullet points, I do plead guilty to being a lawyer. At least there are only two footnotes :-)

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Apr 1st, 2009 @ 7:06pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Well....

    As with many legal issues, it is facts and circumstances. For example, if you are criticizing John Doe for his [fill in the blank] on your blog, but you do it in a way that is clearly insulting, or worse, false, then you can figure it is libel.

    On the other hand, if John Doe is the mayor of your city and your criticism is related to his ability to perform in office, it is protected by the first amendment.

    Yes, there is gray in libel and slander, both of which are civil matters. Fortunately, courts mostly get libel and slander right.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15. identicon
    E F Orwell, Aug 13th, 2009 @ 6:30am

    UK Libel Laws, Money Talks Freedom Walks

    The UK Libel Laws have taken another step into the abyss and could signal the end of Free Speech. A UK based media club, The Groucho Club which is owned by a billion pound corporation ‘Graphite Capital’ have launched a one of kind High Court action for a pre publishing test case for libel against Tyrone D Murphy, the author of an exposé book about the club. The book has not been completed yet and the case seems to be based on what could be written and not what has been written.

    The writer is defending this action in person as the costs are astronomical and I am supporting this writer and his cause. All writers and journalists should also support him as he is in the forefront of the battle for free speech.

    What do you make of this type of case where a legal action can be taken against a writer of a book that has not been written yet? This action is certainly a threat against all writers and journalists is the book web site

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16. identicon
    Jessica Ojeda, Mar 11th, 2010 @ 4:01pm


    I hate to say it but you stole the words from my mouth! The report obviously wasn't written by a blogger. I really need advice on how to give my opinion of other companies and products. I want to tell me readers how I feel about a company or product, but I don't want to get sued in the process.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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