8 Questions to Ask Before Posting a Blog

No I'm Blogging This by Andre Charland

No I'm Blogging This by Andre Charland

I taught a class this week at Gangplank, an awesome collaborative co-working space in Chandler, on some of the legalities of blogging. It was part of Gangplank Academy. As I was going through my notes in preparation of this class, it occurred to me that there are some critical questions every blogger should ask themselves before publishing a new blog post.

1. Is all the information in your blog verifiable?

2. Is every statement that isn’t verifiable indisputable?
Statements like “My knee hurts like it’s going to rain tomorrow” and “My favorite color is blue” may not be verifiable, but there’s no one who can say those statements aren’t true.

3. Do you accuse anyone of committing a crime?
It’s one thing to say, “My neighbor gives me the creeps,” but you might get sued if you say, “In my opinion, my neighbor’s a pedophile.”

4. Are you sharing any information that you learned in confidence?
When you break up with your partner, don’t write a blog post sharing all the personal information you learned during the relationship like their weird fetishes and habits.

5. Are any of your statements misrepresentations or half-truths?

6. Do any of your statements insinuate anything that isn’t true?
If you write a blog about how you don’t like seeing drug users in the park and you include a photo of a person lying in the grass with their eyes closed, they may be unhappy and sue you if they’re not a drug user but were only taking a nap.

7. Is all your information public? Are you writing about a topic where your subject might have an expectation of privacy?
Your neighbor has no expectation of privacy in how he looks naked if you saw him at a public nude beach. He does if you had to creep up to his house and peer through the cracks in his closed blinds to see him.

8. Is all your information from reputable sources?
If you copy or repeat someone’s defamatory statement, even if you didn’t know it was false, you might get sued for defamation.

I love bloggers who push the envelope and sometimes it’s hard to know when you’re crossing the line. When in doubt, consult a lawyer who is a media expert and always follow my rule: “Never put anything online that you wouldn’t put on the front page of the newspaper.”

Courts Split on Shield Laws

Interviewing David Bornstein by Global X

There is an ongoing debate in the state courts about whether bloggers can be protected by the “shield laws.” These are the laws that state that a reporter does not have to reveal the identity of an anonymous news source. The purpose of these laws is to encourage the dissemination of information.

Shield laws are enacted at the state level and are in place in 40 of the 50 States, including Arizona. If you’re a blogger who is sued and you want to use a shield law to protect your source, you usually have to rely on the shield law in the state where you’re being sued, which is not necessarily the state where you live.

So far, the courts in California and New Hampshire ruled that bloggers are protected by their States’ shield laws and the courts in Oregon and Illinois ruled that bloggers are not protected by their States’ shield laws. The verbiage for each State’s shield law is different, and some laws may be worded so narrowly that a court could fairly say that the law cannot apply to bloggers. It is interesting to note that the judge in the Illinois case ruled that bloggers aren’t protected by the shield laws in Illinois or California, and this ruling came down after a California court held that bloggers are protected by the California shield law. We’ll see if the blogger in the Illinois case appeals that ruling.

In general, if you are a blogger who engages in the same activities as a journalist, then you should be protected by the shield laws the same as a journalist. If a person knew of insider trading at a Fortune 500 Company and he gave interviews to the Wall Street Journal and a blogger with a verbal agreement that the writers would not reveal the source of the information, why should a shield law protect the writer from the Wall Street Journal and not the blogger just because the blogger self-publishes?

The courts should not make blanket judgments about whether all bloggers are protected by a shield law. Instead they should make a case-by-case analysis to see if a particular qualifies for protection. Many of the shield laws require regular publication. Based on that requirement, a blogger who only publishes sporadically may not be protected by a shield law.

Arizona has a shield law that states: “A person engaged in newspaper, radio, television or reportorial work, or connected with or employed by a newspaper, radio or television station, shall not be compelled to testify or disclose in a legal proceeding or trial or any proceeding whatever, or before any jury, inquisitorial body or commission, or before a committee of the legislature, or elsewhere, the source of information procured or obtained by him for publication in a newspaper or for broadcasting over a radio or television station with which he was associated or by which he is employed.” I could see a blogger arguing that their blog is reportorial work. The challenge would be convincing a judge or jury that the law should extend to electronic publications, and not just newspapers, TV, and radio.

A court may accept an argument that you’ve made a commitment to protect the anonymity of your sources. There was a case in Maryland in 2009 where a judge did not force a website to reveal the identities of anonymous commenters unless the plaintiff provided evidence to support its claims first. If you have a policy on your blog that states you’ll protect contributors’ anonymity, a court consider that in deciding whether you have to disclose your information source.

The debate over whether bloggers qualify as journalists is not going away anytime soon, and since this is a state law issue, we may remain in this situation where some states protect bloggers under the shield law and others do not. Given that bloggers are accessible everywhere, this issue is likely to get more complicated in the future.

Bloggers Beware: Lessons from the Crystal Cox Case

92/365: Done? by PlayfulLibrarian

92/365: Done? by PlayfulLibrarian

This post was originally published on The Undeniable Ruth in December 2011. 

Many of us got into blogging because we like having a proverbial soapbox we can jump on to share our thoughts with the universe. The recent Crystal Cox case has made me wonder how many bloggers know the legal risk they take when they share their views.

For those of you who missed it, Crystal Cox is an “investigative blogger” in Montana who writes a blog called Bankruptcy Corruption. In one of her posts, she called Kevin Padrick, an attorney in Oregon, “a thug, a thief, and a liar.” Padrick sued Cox for defamation and won . . . $2.5 million!

The interesting thing for bloggers to note is that Cox lives and writes in Montana but she was sued in Oregon and Oregon law applied to the case.

If you write about other people, you open yourself up to the possibility of being sued for defamation or invasion of privacy. These cases are generally based on state laws. The good news is that there isn’t much variation between the laws. The bad news is that there are exceptions.

The really bad news is that the person who claims to have been injured by your blog gets to sue you in the state where they were injured, which is usually their home state. And it’s their home state law that applies. So, if you’re a blogger in Mississippi, and you write about someone in Alaska, and they sue you for defamation, you have to go to Alaska to defend yourself and hire an attorney who can defend you in Alaska. (Another lesson from the Crystal Cox case: don’t be your own attorney!)

Let’s look at the shield law, one of the laws Cox tried to use to defend herself. This is the law journalists invoke to prevent a court from forcing them to reveal an information source. There isn’t one national shield law. There are 40 different state shield laws, and some states don’t have a shield law. Cox tried to use the shield law to defend herself; and in another state, her argument may have held water. But unfortunately for her, the Oregon shield law specifically states that you can’t use the law as a defense in a civil defamation case.

Another challenge surrounding the legalities of blogging is that sometimes the laws are old, really old, as in the-internet-wasn’t-invented-when-the-law-was-written old. In a lot of these cases, the court has to decide how the laws apply to these new situations didn’t exist before we had the internet. You and the other side can propose your interpretation of the law, but there’s no guarantee that the court will accept your interpretation. And you might get really lucky and get a judge who barely knows how to turn on their computer and has no concept of what a blog is.

Someday the laws will be updated to account for the internet and blogging practices. Even when that happens, we will still have to be conscientious of the fact that each state has its own laws, and that we run the risk of being sued in any of the 50 states depending on who and what we write about.

Social Media Policies That Every Company Needs

Texting by Joi Ito

Texting by Joi Ito

This post was originally published on The Undeniable Ruth in January 2011. 

Last weekend I attended a talk by Kade Dworkin to business students on social media strategies for companies. Kade seems to have read every book on this topic and knows the heavy hitters in this area. He suggested that every company have two social media policies.

Social Media Policy for Employees
Is an employee allowed to say who their employer is on their blog? What about their Twitter profile? Is there anything wrong with an employee tweeting out, “Grrr…some days I hate my job” or “My clients are making me crazy?” If there are no rules about what employees can and can’t say online when they’re on their own time, you really can’t get mad at them for what they say, unless there is a blatant violation of client confidentiality or a disclosure of a trade secret. It’s disturbing that only 29% of employers have social media policies. Being active on social media sites is part of doing business today, and if you don’t have a social media policy for employees, you’re asking for trouble.

Social Media Crisis Response Policy
I had never heard this before, but it makes perfect sense. In the past, a company had more time before a bad review is disseminated via newspapers and word of mouth. Now, a bad review can be spread across the internet in a matter of minutes. While a company should hope and work towards providing exceptional goods and services all the time, there will always be individuals who are not happy. When that happens, it’s critical that the company has a plan in place on how it will respond. The company should already have action plans for dealing with the worst case scenarios that might occur. Additionally, Kade suggested that whoever is in charge of social media should have a strong relationship with the company’s legal department to avoid any major missteps.

Recall the fiasco that occurred after Amy’s Baking Company got a bad review on Yelp. The main issue wasn’t that a customer was unhappy, but that the owner did a horrible job responding to the bad review. It’s hard for an owner to get a bad review about their staff and service, and it’s critical that the response be one that attempts to resolve the problem privately and show that the company is customer-focused. In this case, the owner’s response caused irreparable harm to their and their restaurant’s reputation. Many people who read the review and the owner’s response said that they will never patronize that restaurant in the future. I have never been to Amy’s and now given the choice, I’ll go somewhere else.

Kade also suggested that companies never let an intern be in charge of social media because it’s important that whoever is in charge is someone who can make decisions on the fly to resolve problems. This should occur within 30 minutes, not in a few days. A fast and effective response can do as much to bolster a company’s reputation as providing exceptional service.