Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Are Blogs Open to Libel?

The blogosphere in North Carolina (where Connect2 is based) is churning based on a state bill introduced yesterday that would open bloggers up to libel suits. The reaction? Interesting, but a bit predictable. Some folks are claiming the bill violates First Amendment rights, other are arguing that a public figure must prove "actual malice" regarding negative coverage, meaning that the reporter published the story, knowing it was false, with the intent to harm the individual. As some posts have mentioned, under common law, you can be sued, but the state's libel laws include specific protections for newspapers and magazines that may not apply to individual bloggers.

It's an interesting argument. Personally, I think there needs to be some sort of recourse against bloggers. For all the posts (by bloggers no less) on the topic, they are not all the same and do not all operate by journalistic rules, and quite possibly, don't even know the rules exist. Journalists understand that rules apply to objective coverage and that you need to source material before going to print, even if that source is unnamed. Journalism isn't run on rumors. Sure, stories can start as rumors but journalists fact check before running. When this doesn't happen, people lose their jobs and publications lose credibility (CBS, Washington Post, etc have all dealt with this over the past several years.)

Bloggers don't always operate under the same constraints and do not adhere to the same standards as traditional news outlets. Newspapers and magazines have mastheads to enable people to make contact and often have a OpEd page where readers can raise their voices. Bloggers don't have these tools and often hide behind pseudonyms instead of saying who they actually are. Sure, you can post a comment but you don’t really have recourse against the blogger if they are hidden. And...they often post things that are completely speculative without restraint.

That being said, there are many bloggers that do understand the rules and run their sites by traditional journalistic principals. These sites are great and deserve First Amendment protection.

Blogs are easy to set up and anyone can have one on any topic they choose. And I'm not sure everyone that has a blog understands the impact a post can have on people, which is unfortunate. Ultimately, I believe there has to be the same transparency within the print journalism world as there is in the online blogosphere – bloggers slandering citizens need to know that there repercussions to their actions and conversely, private citizens need to know they have choices/actions should such an incident occur.

Let’s face it. This law is not meant to protect people from credentialed bloggers like the Huffington Post and GigaOm who most likely will never have issues, but from the random blogger that is just out to throw stones.