New Jersey Case Looks At Whether Bloggers Can Protect Sources

from the who's-the-media-these-days? dept

There have been a number of cases recently that have tested whether various laws that protect journalists from having to give up their sources also apply to people publishing content online in forums, email groups or blogs. The latest, sent in by someone Anonymous, is taking place in New Jersey, where a woman who revealed a security breach in the software of a company called Too Much Media is being sued for slander in revealing the breach. There are numerous issues with the lawsuit, including the oddity that they're suing for slander for online comments, since slander is for spoken words, whereas libel is normally applied to the written word. It's also odd that they're suing considering the fact that they don't deny the security breach existed, but dispute the claim that customer info (including credit card details) were exposed, because they claim the security breach was brief and no info was compromised. That seems like a pretty weak defense.

However, the real battle seems to be over the attempt to determine how the woman, Shellee Hale, found out about the breach in the first place. She's refusing to give that up, claiming that she has a right to protect her sources, just like any journalist. And while Hale writes multiple different blogs, and has written for many mainstream publications (including the Wall Street Journal and Business Week), Too Much Media claims that she doesn't deserve protections afforded to journalists because she wasn't working for any real publication and is just a blogger. The article quotes someone who says that if the court sides with Hale:
"then everyone is a journalist and the privilege becomes meaningless."
I don't see how that's actually true. In fact, I'd argue the other way. It's not that it becomes meaningless, but that it becomes very, very meaningful -- especially in an era where we're looking for new ways to prop up investigative journalism. If everyone's a journalist, and everyone has a reasonable expectation that their sources are shielded, then we're much more likely to continue to root out corruption. If this protection is somehow reserved for some "special" credentialed people, then it becomes that much harder to expose corruption.

Unfortunately, it appears that the judge in the case is almost entirely computer and internet illiterate, needing to ask for explanations for a variety of things during the court proceedings. He seemed entirely confused by the very concept of people blogging for personal interest:
"Why would a guy put all this stuff on a blog? Does he have nothing better to do?" Locasio asked. "Does he get paid?"
The judge, who apparently is about to retire in a couple months, also didn't understand the difference between blogs, message boards and forums, and was apparently unfamiliar with instant messaging. It's difficult to see why someone entirely unfamiliar with the technology should be able to judge a case like this, where understanding what's happening online is crucial to understanding what the case is really about.

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  1. identicon
    Daivd, 1 May 2009 @ 7:19am

    Question

    I'm asking this honestly because I don't really know the law that well. If I were to tell Joe smith the same info via word of mouth and the company found out (I don't work for the company in this situation). Can that company hunt me down and demand I tell them how I found out? Seems a bit odd seeing a police officer could arrest me but not force me to say something due to my right to remain silent. It kind of suggests that a company is above the law. Theoretically, if I were a government and wanted to know something, I would send a company after a person instead of arresting them. Pretty big loophole if you ask me...

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