People criticised in online journals fight back, experts fear the impact on free speech
Straits TimesThursday, October 5, 2006
New York --- Mr Rafe Banks, a lawyer in Georgia, took his ex-client David Milum to court when the latter wrote on his blog that Mr Banks had bribed judges on behalf of drug dealers.
Last January, Mr Milum became the first blogger to lose a libel case in the United States and was ordered to pay US$50,000 (S$79,000) in damages to Mr Banks.
The case is just an example of how blogs are increasingly being targeted by those who feel harmed by attacks on the online journals.
In the past two years, more than 50 lawsuits stemming from postings on blogs and website message boards have been filed in the US, reported USA Today.
The suits have sparked a debate over how the "blogosphere" and its impact on speech and publishing might change libel law.
Legal experts say the lawsuits are challenging a mindset that has long surrounded blogging -- that most bloggers are "judgment-proof" because they are often ordinary citizens who do not have money.
This is unlike traditional media such as newspapers, magazines and television stations.
But the lawsuits by Mr Banks and others were undertaken not with the sole purpose of claiming damages, but also to silence their critics.
"Bloggers did not think they could be subject to libel," said Mr Eric Robinson, a Media Law Resource Centre attorney. "You take what is on your mind, type it and post it."
Mr Robert Cox, founder and president of the Media Bloggers Association, which has 1,000 members, told USA Today the recent wave of lawsuits means that bloggers should learn libel law.
"It has not happened yet, but soon, there will be a blogger who is successfully sued and who loses his home," he said.
At its best, the blogosphere represents the ultimate in free speech by giving voice to millions. But the blogosphere is also the Internet's Wild West, a rapidly expanding frontier town with no sheriff.
Nearly two blogs are created every second, according to Technorati, a San Francisco company that tracks more than 53 million blogs.
Besides forming online communities in which people share ideas, news and gossip, and debate issues of the day, blogs empower character assassins and mischief makers.
"People take advantage of the anonymity to say things in public they would never say to anyone face-to-face," Mr Cox said.
He thinks the chief danger in legal disputes over what is said on the Internet is the potential chilling effect it could have on free speech.
A key principle that courts use in determining whether someone has been libelled is what damage the offending article did to that person's reputation in his or her community, USA Today reported.
Professor Susan Crawford, who specialises in media and Internet issues, said the ease with which false postings can be corrected instantly, among other things, will force judges to reconsider how to measure the damage that is done to a plaintiff's reputation.
"Libel law depends on having a reputation in a particular town that is damaged," she said.
"Do you have an online reputation? What is your community that hears about the damage to your online reputation?...But judges will be sceptical that a single, four-line (posting in a) blog has actually damaged anyone."
Mr Greg Herbert, an Orlando lawyer, disagrees.
The principles of libel law are not going to change, he said.
However, some judges "might not think a blogger is entitled to the same sort of free speech protection others are. A lot of judges still do not know what a blog is, and they think the Internet is a dark and nefarious place where all kinds of evil deeds occur."