Civil litigation appeal clarifies bloggers' first amendment right

Many residents of Portland, Oregon, likely have blogs. From sharing recipes online to discussing news or celebrity stories, bloggers provide entertainment and information online, much like professional journalists. An appeals court ruled in a civil litigation case on Friday, Jan. 17 that bloggers also have the same first amendment rights that journalists - and anyone else - have.

The appeal involved a suit filed by an Oregon bankruptcy trustee. The trustee and his partners originally filed the suit against a blogger in another state. The suit alleges that the blogger made false and defamatory claims against the trustee and his company. According to reports, the blogger wrote on several sites that the trustee had committed fraud. She also accused the company of criminal activity, including money laundering.

The plaintiffs claimed that the blogger's actions hurt business. A lower court originally awarded the plaintiffs $2.5 million in damages, but an appeals court reversed the decision.

According to the appeals court, when an issue is of public interest, plaintiffs must prove negligence in a libel or slander suit. The appeals court did not find proof of actual damages or fault in the case. It also noted that the company hired by the trustee had defrauded investors through a Ponzi scheme.

A University of California, Los Angeles law professor, who offered to help the blogger with the appeal, said the court's decision is positive for bloggers. Though the decision follows a precedent set by cases involving authors, writers and advocacy groups, the law professor says he thinks it's the first time a first federal appeals court made a ruling on a case involving blogger first amendment rights.

The precedent is something that bloggers, businesses and public entities should keep in mind. As with professional journalists, bloggers don't have the right to maliciously defame anyone. However, the burden of proof is with the plaintiff.

Source: USA Today, "Federal appeals court rules Web journalists have same constitutional protections as traditional media." Jeff Barnard, Jan. 17, 2014

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