Appeal filed in bloggers-aren’t-journalists case

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.

More on the journalists-aren’t-bloggers ruling

The redoubtable David Carr has an interesting column in today’s New York Times in which he reports that “investigative blogger” Crystal Cox’s conduct was considerably beyond the pale of what anyone would consider journalism. (My Huffington Post commentary on the case is here.)

But if her behavior was that egregious, then the plaintiffs should have had no problem convincing a jury that she acted negligently (or worse). The negligence standard is a vital constitutional protection regardless of whether those benefitting from it are sympathetic figures.

In order to prove libel, a plaintiff must show that information published or broadcast about him was false and defamatory. Starting with the 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court began to require a third element as well: fault. The regime that’s in effect today was solidified by the 1974 case of Gertz v. Robert Welch. Here’s what the courts mean by “fault”:

  • A public official or public figure must show that what was published or broadcast about him was done so with knowing falsity, or with “reckless disregard” of whether it was true or false.
  • A private figure must show that the defendant acted negligently when it published or broadcast false, defamatory information about the plaintiff.

U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez, in his pretrial ruling, obliterated the fault requirement for any defendant except those he deems to be journalists, ignoring the Supreme Court’s longstanding position that the First Amendment applies equally to all of us — for the “lonely pamphleteer” as much as for major newspaper publishers, as Justice Byron White put it in Branzburg v. Hayes (1972).

Hernandez’s contention that journalists enjoy greater free-speech protections than non-journalists is an outrage, and should not be allowed to stand.

Making sense of that journalists-aren’t-bloggers ruling

In my latest for the Huffington Post, I take a look at that bloggers-aren’t-journalists ruling in Oregon. And I argue that the case has nothing to do with the shield law, and everything to do with the dangerous cultural schism between journalists and the rest of society — and a judge who wants to widen it.

The future of journalism and the law

This Friday I’ll be taking part in a panel discussion titled “The Future of Journalism: Law and Ethics in a Changing Media Ecosystem.” It’s part of an all-day conference called “Journalism’s Digital Transition: Unique Legal Challenges and Opportunities,” sponsored by the Citizen Media Law Project and to be held at Harvard Law School.

Our panel, to be held from 3:10 to 5 p.m., will focus on issues such as whether shield laws can be crafted so that bloggers and citizen journalists can protect their confidential sources, and if the shift toward nonprofit journalism means fewer First Amendment rights. (Among other things, non-profit organizations may not endorse political candidates.)

The other panelists:

The moderator will be Phil Malone, clinical professor of law and director of the Cyberlaw Clinic at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society.

Coakley gets it wrong on shield law

Martha Coakley
Martha Coakley

Bill Densmore has posted a crowdsourced Q&A with Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley, a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. (Disclosure: As you’ll see if you read it all the way through, I helped with one of the questions.)

I have not read the entire interview, but I did read her answer to a question about whether she would support a federal shield law to protect journalists who are ordered to reveal their confidential sources.

Coakley’s answer is troublesome, as she replies that she supports protection for “bona fide journalists.” I take that to mean card-carrying members of the mainstream media.

I am dubious of shield laws, and believe an absolute law would likely be ruled unconstitutional. At most, shield laws should require a judge to rule on whether a journalist’s testimony is necessary and if there might be some alternative way of getting the same information, as outlined by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in the 1972 Branzburg v. Hayes decision. (Alas, Stewart was on the losing side, and his proposed balancing test has led a tortured existence.)

But whatever is protected, it ought to be journalism, not journalists. If an amateur blogger is engaging in journalism, then she should have just as much protection as a press-pass-wielding reporter. The test shouldn’t be who you are — it should be what you do.

A privilege for the privileged

Amy Gahran of the Poynter Institute writes that a proposed federal shield law would actually be a step backwards. Under the original version, the bill would protect “a person engaged in journalism” from having to reveal his or her anonymous sources, a definition seemingly elastic enough to cover bloggers.

The new version, by contrast, covers “A person who, for financial gain or livelihood [Gahran’s emphasis], is engaged in journalism,” which would largely restrict the shield law’s protections to professional journalists. Gahran writes:

Journalism is a practice, not a priesthood. At its core it’s about committing acts of journalism, not about getting a degree, being employed, or even getting paid. I think a federal shield law with such exclusive language would only serve to diminish the practice and independence of journalism, especially among people who are sticking their necks out entirely on their own to do it.

She adds that she hopes President Bush vetoes it. (Don’t worry; he will.)

As we’ve seen in recent years, journalists have no constitutional right to protect their anonymous sources if they’re call into court to testify. Judith Miller‘s case is the best-known, but there are many others as well.

Forty-nine states either have shield laws or state-court opinions that essentially require judges to consider all other options before forcing journalists to testify. But there is no such protection at the federal level, which is why Congress is now considering such legislation.

The trouble is, as Gahran notes, the First Amendment recognizes no special privileges for journalists as a class. Nor should it. The First Amendment is for all of us. By passing a shield law that protects journalism as an activity, Congress would be honoring the spirit of the First Amendment. The change Gahran rightly worries about would only protect members of the “priesthood.”

It would be interesting to learn why the language was changed, and who was behind it.

NPR’s “On the Media” has a good summation of the shield-law debate.