New Trial in Crystal Cox Defamation Case – What Does It Mean for Bloggers?

First Amendment to the US Constitution by elPadawan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

First Amendment to the US Constitution by elPadawan from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled that Crystal Cox will get a new trial for the defamation lawsuit that was filed against her. Cox calls herself an “investigative blogger” and she wrote a blog post where she accused Oregon bankruptcy attorney Kevin Padrick and his company, Obsidian Finance Group LLC of committing “fraud, corruption, money-laundering and other illegal activities.” Padrick sued Cox for defamation and an Oregon court awarded him $2.5 million in damages.

In general, defamation requires a false statement about a person communicated to a third party that hurts that person’s reputation. Based on this definition, it’s easy to see how a blogger could be accused of defamation if someone suspects the blogger is lying about them in a post. The court applies different standards for different situations involving situations which will affect whether the author has committed defamation and what damages can be awarded.

A court may award compensatory damages to make up for the person’s damaged reputation and punitive damages to punish the person who committed the defamation.

Here are the three standards that can apply in a defamation case.

  • Defamation of a public person: The alleged victim must prove that the author knew or should have known they were lying when they made the statement in question – only compensatory damages available.
  • Defamation of a private person regarding a manner of public concern: Punitive damages are available in addition to compensatory damages if the alleged victim can prove that the author was negligent in making the statement.
  • Defamation of a private person regarding a matter that is not of public concern: Compensatory and punitive damages are available if the alleged victim can show that the statement was false and damaged their reputation.

It appears the lower court applied the standard for defamation of a private person regarding a matter that is not of public concern and the court of appeals ruled that they should have used the standard for defamation of a private person regarding a manner of public concern because the public has an interest regarding whether an attorney is corrupt and committing fraud. So the parties will have to settle the case between themselves or have a new trial and use the correct standard. But note, there is no dispute about whether the statement in question was defamatory, only what standard the court is supposed to use to decide the case.

Some people are calling this ruling a huge victory for bloggers because it states that the same defamation standards for journalists apply to blogging – and I’m going to respectfully disagree.  The landmark defamation cases may have started with journalists, but we don’t have different defamation laws for journalists and everyone else. (If this were a Shield Law case, it would be different.) There have been other defamation cases against non-journalists where the court applied the same standards. The fact that this might be the first time a court has said that bloggers can write about matters of public concern is an indicator of how few defamation cases go to trial more than anything else. No real new information has come out of this ruling by the Ninth Circuit.

This case is a good reminder about where you can be sued because of your blog. If you do something wrong via your blog and you get sued, the alleged victim is going to sue you in their state and under their state’s laws. In this case, Cox was living in Montana when she made the original statements and she had to travel to Oregon to defend herself under Oregon’s laws.

If you want more information about internet defamation, please check out my book, The Legal Side of Blogging: How Not to get Sued, Fired, Arrested, or Killed. It has an entire chapter dedicated to online defamation. You can connected with me on TwitterFacebookYouTubeLinkedIn, or you can email me. You can also subscribe to the Carter Law Firm newsletter.
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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.