A federal judge in Oregon recently ruled that a blogger is not a journalist or member of the “media”, and ordered the blogger to pay $ 2.5 million in damages in a defamation lawsuit. This is potentially a chilling ruling for bloggers everywhere, including those who blog on behalf of companies or organizations.
In the case at hand, Montana-based blogger Crystal Cox criticized Oregon-based attorney Kevin Padrick on her blog, calling him corrupt, among other things. Padrick sued Cox for defamation. Cox defended herself, arguing that (a) she was acting as an investigative journalist when she wrote her blog posts; and (b) Padrick was a public figure. Cox was thus invoking the special First Amendment protections that members of the media have when writing or speaking about public figures. Under the 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York Times v. Sullivan case, in a defamation lawsuit by a public figure against a member of the media, the accuser must prove that the journalist acted with “actual malice”, meaning knowledge that the statements are false or in reckless disregard of their truth or falsity. That is a very high standard that is rarely met (which is why you can read so much trash about celebrities in tabloid papers and websites).
However, the judge in this case didn’t buy Cox’s defense. He ruled that Cox did not demonstrate that she was a member of the “media” or a journalist. The judge also ruled that Padrick was not a “public figure” under the Sullivan legal standard. Accordingly, the judge applied a much lower standard, and found that Cox had defamed Padrick.
The judge’s view in this case struck some analysts as extremely antiquated. Indeed, if the law did not keep up with new media technologies, only those who write on cave walls and papyrus would be considered journalists. Nevertheless, other judges around the country could render similar rulings in future cases. Bloggers, including those who write on behalf of companies and organizations, will need to be extremely careful that what they write is both accurate and lawful. And if they need assistance in doing so, who better than an online writer/blogger who was trained as a communications lawyer to help them? That happens to be me.