Last week, a California federal appeals court, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, ruled that bloggers have constitutional First Amendment rights similar to journalists. Obsidian Financial Group sued blogger Cheryl Cox when she made claims of fraud, conspiracy and money laundering among other claims. They contended defamation and they won at the trial level with the blogger being slammed with a $2,500,000 damage award. Cox appealed and the federal appeals court determined that Cox, a blogger, was entitled to the same protections in her virtual arena that a paper media journalist is entitled to under the First Amendment.
According to the appellate court, statements of public concern on a blog such as those made by Cox are entitled to the protections of the First Amendment, the same as traditional print journalists enjoy.
The protections of the
First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was
a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news
entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond
just assembling others’ writings, or tried to get both
sides of a story. As the Supreme Court has accurately
warned, a First Amendment distinction between the
institutional press and other speakers is unworkable: “With
the advent of the Internet and the decline of print and
broadcast media . . . the line between the media and others
who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes
far more blurred.” (Citation omitted). In
defamation cases, the public-figure status of a plaintiff and
the public importance of the statement at issue—not the
identity of the speaker—provide the First Amendment
We therefore hold that the Gertz negligence requirement
for private defamation actions is not limited to cases with
institutional media defendants.
The court went on to reverse the trial court’s findings and remand the matter for a new trial.