Freedom of the Blog

A Dakota County, Minnesota, judge just struck a blow for freedom of the press – or freedom of the individual person who presses fingers to computer keys and speaks his or her mind on a blog like this one.

This ruling gives the average citizen the same protection journalists have had while they criticize people who have power and influence. It extends a landmark First Amendment case to bloggers – saying you can only be successfully sued for libel by a public figure or public official if you say something on your blog that you know isn’t true or you recklessly disregarded whether or not it is true.

It’s a victory for democracy, a victory for individual voices.

True, some people worry that bloggers don’t have the professional training and experience that journalists do, so what bloggers put out on the web will be more loosey-goosey, less fair and accurate, than what journalists print and broadcast.

And it will be. There’s a lot of crap and nonsense on the internet, a lot of stuff that’s just not true.  And – hello – there’s a lot of crap and nonsense in the mainstream media, a lot of stuff that’s just not true.

Many people – generally we baby boomers who still read newspapers – worry that the younger generations get their news from the internet and that much of that “news” hasn’t been gathered and edited by professional journalists. That’s a fair concern. Just because I can report something on this blog doesn’t mean it’s true or accurate. When I was a daily newspaper reporter, what I wrote only got into print after I’d been asked a lot of questions by several editors to see if I’d checked facts and dug deeply enough to get close to the truth. And I wasn’t hired by The Minneapolis Star until I’d been through college journalism training and had gathered three years of experience on a smaller paper, making mistakes and learning how to get closer to the truth in my reporting.

As a blogger, I write and then – bam – press one key and my stuff is published. No scrutiny. No questions asked by anyone.

So why is it good that bloggers now can be shielded from libel convictions unless they’re extremely irresponsible? Because sometimes it’s the little guy, the renegade, the person on the margins, who’s willing to speak up and say something’s not right.

The internet has democratized journalism – it’s damned expensive to start and run a newspaper, magazine or broadcast station, and those who have that much capital tend to become part of the establishment, less likely to question how and why things are the way they are. With a blog, you need only access to the internet and you’re suddenly a reporter and publisher.

Look at the roots of this case and you’ll see why we need the establishment to be poked at and challenged.

The New York Times vs. Sullivan case that was just extended to blogers came out of the Civil Rights struggles of the early 1960s, when reporters were beaten and killed covering black citizens who were beaten and killed for trying to claim their basic rights as Americans. In the South just 40 years ago, blacks couldn’t register to vote, couldn’t serve on juries or be judged by juries of their peers, couldn’t sit on the main floors of theaters or drink at water fountains whites used, couldn’t fight back within the law at all when their rights were violated. The law, the establishment, the sheriffs, the legislatures, allowed this to happen. It was the way things were.

And the press? Went along for the ride. Would not write about injustice to blacks. Would not broadcast interviews with blacks. Would not investigate or publish the truth when whites lynched blacks in broad daylight in front of hundreds of witnesses yet were acquitted by all-white juries.

Who would write about these horrors? The black press – the bloggers of that time. And a few mainstream national reporters started covering segregation when Civil Rights Movement leaders figured out how to get their attention with mass marches and sit-ins that sparked violent reactions by the Southern establishment. (And racial injustices in the North were only covered by the mainstream media when riots in the 1960s made them impossible to ignore any longer.)

Had the New York Times vs. Sullivan lawsuits gone the other way in 1964, reporters’ criticism of established power would have been greatly curtailed and this country would not have been able to see and correct its mistakes and transgressions.

Reporters must be able to challenge government, corporate and institutional power and must be able to make mistakes while they do it, as the philosophy behind the libel laws goes. If reporters have to get everything right, nothing would ever be printed, Benjamin Franklin said. We have the right to be wrong – but we don’t have the right to say something about another person that we know is wrong. And now bloggers – if this local case holds up to further judicial scrutiny – have the same rights as journalists.

America was founded by establishment people – Jefferson, Madison – who chose to protect a rowdy, partisan, unfair and unprofessional bunch of reporters and publishers. The founders protected free speech – even badly done free speech – because they believed the more free speech was out there the more likely citizens were to be informed, and the less likely it was that government could pull the wool over citizens’ eyes.

I think Jefferson would dig blogging – although he’d want us all to be more educated and informed than we are – and I think he’d be thanking Dakota County District Judge Timothy Blakely.


 Here’s the Minneapolis Star Tribune story on the judge’s ruling:

5 thoughts on “Freedom of the Blog

  1. jl says:

    Agree that its the right ruling, but I’m not so sanguine about the promise of blogs.

    Blogs as commentary? Great. Blogs as journalism? I’m scared, very scared.

    My worry is not so much that bloggers aren’t trained as journalists. My bigger problem is that they have no editors to check and hold them accountable. Also, most don’t have time or resources, which increases the chances they get it wrong. Most can’t spend all day on the phone or all week on the plane running down a a story, because they have day jobs. So, they do what they do have time to do, which is mostly speculate based on minimal knowledge.

    So blogs as news sources scare me. A lot. It’s not a problem for the courts to fix, but the education system is going to have to break from its osession with standardized testing and get a lot better at preparing people to be critical thinkers and critical consumers of information, because there’s a lot more and a lot worse information out there.

  2. Lurker says:

    I’m with JL on this. At my corporation, we are painfully aware of how blog writers can “break” news – whether it’s accurate information or not. Surprise phone calls from the NY Times, WSJ, Reuters or Bloomberg reporters asking for a company comment on a “story” broken by a blog writer is just one more trend our profession has to manage. Thank goodness for voice mail! Of course, on the flip side, reporters now face new challenges, too. What happens in a newsroom when the managing editor starts cursing a beat reporter for getting scooped by some blogger in Timbuktu?

    Cuts both ways, doesn’t it? (said in a very devilish, vindictive tone).

  3. Kelly Fuller says:

    This ruling is one more reason why I’m glad I moved from San Diego to Minneapolis. For over a year, I wrote a California blog that focused on the fight to stop a proposed 500 kV transmission line. While there was extensive media coverage of the issue, it didn’t begin to include all the details people wanted to know, and while most of the reporters and editors were well intentioned, what they published and broadcast was pretty shallow and risk adverse.

    I can understand why the paid journalists were so careful. It was common knowledge that the company once tried to get a local reporter fired over an unflattering article, plus it was a big advertiser and a large corporate philanthropist.

    But at least the media had some legal protections. It was unnerving not having any. Representatives of the utility company went out of their way to let me know that they were watching everything I did, whether it was talking to me about specific blog entries or conspicuously videotaping me at public hearings. Because the company has a reputation for taking its opponents to court, I constantly monitored what I wrote for accuracy. Whenever I could, I included links to my sources, hoping that if I ever got sued it would be understood that I was partisan but truthful. It really fried me that I had to be so careful, yet the company was free to spread untrue rumors about me and falsely tell reporters and local elected officials that I was lying.

    So if folks are concerned about this giving protection to careless bloggers, please know that it also will protect good people who really need it.

  4. Lurker says:

    Hi Kelly:

    Couldn’t help notice that you ultimately felt “fried” about having to be so cautious with a blog designed to inform about the dangers of a 500 kV transmission line.

    Oh the irony!

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