Lawyer-blogger Eugene Volokh has filed an appeal in the matter of the Montana blogger who lost a $2.5 million libel case after a federal judge ruled she was not entitled to the legal protections enjoyed by journalists.
“The motion for new trial,” Volokh writes, “argues that the First Amendment applies equally to all who speak to the public, whether or not they belong to the institutional media.”
I wrote about the case last month for the Huffington Post. In a nutshell, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez ruled that Crystal Cox, a self-described “investigative blogger,” could not be considered a journalist under Oregon law, where she was sued. Hernandez wrote that he reached that conclusion because Cox did not work for a newspaper or broadcast outlet, and because she lacked training and failed to demonstrate professional standards.
Hernandez’s ruling had two effects. First, Cox could not invoke Oregon’s shield law to protect her source or sources, whose identity was sought by the plaintiffs, a financial-services company and one of its executives. That ruling was actually of little account, since even established media organizations can’t invoke shield laws to defend themselves against libel suits.
Of far more importance was Hernandez’s ruling that the plaintiffs would not have to prove Cox had acted negligently — only that what she had published was false and defamatory. In the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that libel plaintiffs must prove the defendant acted with some degree of fault, with negligence as the lowest standard the states could require. But, seizing on an ambiguity in the wording, Hernandez claimed the Gertz protection only applies to professional journalists.
Volokh, by contrast, argues that the U.S. Supreme Court has made it clear for many decades that journalists do not enjoy any special protections under the First Amendment — meaning that any rulings the court has made about the press apply to everyone, not just to those carrying a press pass from a newspaper or television station. (Which was the main thrust of my Huffington Post commentary.) According to the brief, filed by Volokh and Benjamin Souede:
[W]hile the Oregon Supreme Court’s decision establishes what Oregon state libel law is, it is the judgments of the United States Supreme Court that are controlling on the First Amendment question. The United States Supreme Court has never held that the institutional press enjoys such extra rights. All the federal courts of appeals that have considered this question have specifically held that the institutional press lacks any such extra rights.
As several people who’ve looked at this case have reported, most notably David Carr of the New York Times, there is ample evidence that Crystal Cox’s conduct was reprehensible, and that the plaintiffs — Obsidian Financial Group and one of its executives, Kevin Padrick — might easily have won their libel case even if they had been required to meet the Gertz negligence standard.
What makes this case important is not Cox, but rather the principle that all of us — not just professional journalists — should be able to speak and write freely without inadvertently running afoul of libel laws.