Monday, December 12, 2011

Blogger Fined $2.5 Million For Not Being A Journalist

Blogger Fined $2.5 Million For Not Being A Journalist

A U.S. District Court judge in Oregon has ruled that a blogger must pay a $2.5 million fine to an investment firm she wrote about, because she isn’t a real journalist.

Specifically, as first reported by Seattle Weekly, Judge Marco A. Hernandez stated that Crystal Cox, who runs several blogs, was not entitled to be protected by Oregon’s media shield law for sources because she wasn’t “affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system.”

So if Cox worked for “Hustler,” for example, she would have been protected. And what about a journalist who tweets something during her out-of-work hours, or posts a comment on a blog? Is she still protected?

Cox Wrote Several Blogs Critical of The Obsidian Finance Group

The Obsidian Finance Group sued Cox in January for $10 million for writing several blog posts critical of the company and its co-founder, Kevin Padrick. Obsidian argued that the writing was defamatory. Cox represented herself in court.

The judge threw out all but one of the blog posts cited, focusing on just one that contained a lot of facts. Cox said that was because she was being fed information from an inside source, whom she refused to name.

Without the source, she couldn’t prove the information in the post was true — and thus, according to the judge, she didn’t qualify for Oregon’s media shield law since she wasn’t employed by a media establishment. In the court’s eyes, she was a blogger, not a journalist. And there’s a $2.5 million price to pay for that.

A Different Story Next Door In The State Of Washington

From Seattle Weekly:

Bruce E. H. Johnson, attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine, is a veteran litigator in the field of free speech and media law. In 2006 he drafted Washington state’s media shield legislation, and in 2007 the state legislature passed it into law.

He says that had Cox’s case been heard in a Washington court, the outcome (at least in regards to the shield law) would have most likely been different.

“I believe the shield law would have been applied [in Washington state],” Johnson tells Seattle Weekly. “Oregon’s law was probably written before blogging was accounted for.”

Media shield laws exist in 40 U.S. states and protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources in court.

A Dangerous Precedent

The debate over whether bloggers are “real” journalists or not will undoubtedly continue. But this isn’t a debate about whether bloggers are good enough writers to be called journalists. Presumably if Cox had been paid to blog by a news service, then she would have been protected by Oregon’s law.

It is truly a dangerous precedent to say that any writers, be they bloggers, journalists, or reporters, are only protected if the content they are producing is being paid for by another company. What on earth was Judge Hernandez thinking?

Cox tells Seattle Weekly that she plans to appeal her ruling. I think she should get a lawyer this time around.

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