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Bloggers get the same libel protection as traditional journalists, federal court rules

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ia writer
ia writer

What's the difference between a blogger and a journalist? Congress is still debating that question, but today a federal appeals court ruled that there's no difference when it comes to defamation.

In 2011, blogger Crystal Cox lost a trial when an Oregon judge denied her a First Amendment protection traditionally reserved for the press. She claimed that Obsidian Finance Group was guilty of tax fraud — which was false, it appears — and a jury awarded Obsidian $2.5 million in damages. Normally, Obsidan would have had to prove that Cox was negligent to recover some of that money from Cox, and that prove she acted with "actual malice" to get the rest. However, those rules came from Supreme Court cases that only applied to journalists — cases that predated blogging — and at the time, the Oregon judge decided that Cox didn't have the credentials of a journalist.

Today, however, the appeals court decided it doesn't matter whether Cox is part of the traditional press. Wrote Judge Marco Hernandez:

"The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others' writings, or tried to get both sides of a story. As the Supreme Court has accurately warned, a First Amendment distinction between the institutional press and other speakers is unworkable."

"In defamation cases, the public-figure status of a plaintiff and the public importance of the statement at issue — not the identity of the speaker — provide the First Amendment touchstones," added the judge.

Cox's case isn't over, though. Obsidian can still attempt to prove that she was negligent, or harbored actual malice, at a new trial. That might not be an impossible task. According to court documents, Cox didn't contest the jury's decision that her blog post was false and defamatory. And according to a New York Times story from 2011, Cox may have been trying to blackmail the organization. She sent Obsidian Finance a letter suggesting that the company pay her $2,500 a month for her to fix the damage to its reputation.

In a much stranger story of a blogger facing a defamation case, former sports reporter Roger Schuler currently sits in an Alabama jail, charged with contempt of court. He claims he was never properly served with a court order which asked him to remove his blog posts, which alleged that the son of a former Alabama governor secretly impregnated a lobbyist and paid for her abortion.