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: