Victory For Citizen Journalism: Court Sides With Bloggers In 1st Amendment Challenge

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An appeals court has tossed out a lower court’s finding that would have denied bloggers the same 1st Amendment protections afforded to mainstream journalists.

That’s an enormous victory for citizen journalism, as well as for the essential right of every American to freely and plainly speak (and write) his mind.

In taking up an appeal of a case in which a blogger was sued for defamation, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals weighed whether bloggers generally could claim the same protections under the 1st Amendment as conventional journalists, who can write enterprise pieces questioning the actions of public officials while protecting their sources.

Here’s The Hollywood Reporter’s synopsis of that case:

In a blog post, [Crystal] Cox accused Obsidian Finance Group and its co-founder Kevin Padrick of committing tax fraud while administering the assets of a company in a Chapter 11 reorganization. At trial, a jury awarded the plaintiffs a total of $2.5 million over false assertions.

Before the case got to trial, however, Cox pointed to landmark judicial opinions including New York Times Co. v. Sullivan to make the argument that because the blog post involved a matter of public concern, the plaintiffs had the burden of proving her negligence in order to recover for defamation. Alternatively, she asserted that Padrick and Obsidian were public figures and as such, they needed to show she acted with “actual malice.”

The trial judge responded that she had failed to submit “evidence suggestive of her status as a journalist.”

But the 9th Circuit ruled that Cox didn’t need, under the Bill of Rights, to provide any kind of evidence to qualify her right to report on such a matter.

“The protections of the 1st 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,” wrote Circuit Judge Andrew Hurwitz in his ruling. “…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 1st Amendment touchstones.”

Cox’ case will be retried under different merits that weigh whether she was negligent in her reporting. But the Circuit Court ruling has effectively denied the plaintiffs from any attempt to segregate citizen journalists such as Cox away from the same Constitutional protections afforded the mainstream-media class – and, indeed, every American citizen.

That flies in the face of draconian, segregationist measures posited by progressives like Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Chuck Schumer (D- N.Y.), who have pushed a bill that aims to limit 1st Amendment protections only to those who belong to a professional class of government-sanctioned journalists.

Ben Bullard

Reconciling the concept of individual sovereignty with conscientious participation in the modern American political process is a continuing preoccupation for staff writer Ben Bullard. A former community newspaper writer, Bullard has closely observed the manner in which well-meaning small-town politicians and policy makers often accept, unthinkingly, their increasingly marginal role in shaping the quality of their own lives, as well as those of the people whom they serve. He argues that American public policy is plagued by inscrutable and corrupt motives on a national scale, a fundamental problem which individuals, families and communities must strive to solve. This, he argues, can be achieved only as Americans rediscover the principal role each citizen plays in enriching the welfare of our Republic.