Are internet blog posts afforded the same 1st amendment rights granted to those working with traditional news media? Yes, according to this recent 9th Circuit Court case which appears to be the the first federal case that specifically addresses and protects the rights of bloggers. Internet writers can now take a deep breath and write a little more freely.
In defamation suits, bloggers and citizen journalists are at par with the professional journalists. The legal standards for judging their actions should be the same in relation to the First Amendment.
Crystal Cox, the blogger in question, was taken to court by Obsidian Finance Group, for having allegedly defamed the company. In her blog, Cox accused the Finance group of fraud, corruption and other deeds of misconduct. While Cox posted various blogs about this company, the one post that went to trial contained allegations that one of the company’s principals had failed to pay taxes for a company that filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
During the initial trial, the court stated that this was not the first time Cox had made such allegations against a company in the hopes of gaining a payoff in exchange for a retraction. Subsequently, the jury awarded Obsidian Finance Group $2.5 million for damages allegedly caused by her posts. Cox then appealed. She never argued the validity of her posts or the fact that such posts did cause damage, but rather claimed that the trial court could not allow any damage award without proof of negligence on her part.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with Cox’s argument stating that the jury should have been instructed to determine whether Cox had acted negligently because the subject of her comments were of public interest. Furthermore, the harm the jury claimed was brought upon the plaintiffs could not be proved and thus the jury lacked the power to grant such awards. The court voted unanimously that the defamation award brought against Cox be overturned.
“The protections of the 1st Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities,”
Case citation: Obsidian Finance Group v. Cox, Nos. 12-35238 & 35319 (9th Cir. Jan 17, 2014)