Ethics in Blogging As To Public Figures

ethicsIn short: Bloggers can certainly be held liable for defamation. The question is more about the context of the statement (whether it is a statement of verifiable fact vs. opinion) and the heightened standard applied to public figures.

“The First Amendment limits California’s libel law in various respects. When, the plaintiff is a public figure, he cannot recover unless he proves by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant published the defamatory statement with actual malice, i.e., with ‘knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’ Mere negligence does not suffice. Rather, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the author ‘in fact entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication,’ or acted with a ‘high degree of awareness of . . . probable falsity.’ New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) 376 U.S. 254.

Examples of libelous and non-libelous statements

The following are a few examples from actual California cases.

Libelous (when false):

  • Charging someone with being a communist
  • Calling an attorney a “crook”
  • Describing a woman as a call girl
  • Accusing a minister of unethical conduct
  • Accusing a father of violating the confidence of son

Not-libelous:

  • Calling a political foe a “thief” and “liar”
  • Calling someone a “local loser,” “chicken butt” and “big skank”
  • Calling someone a “bitch” or a “son of a bitch”
  • Changing product code name from “Carl Sagan” to “Butt Head Astronomer”

Context is critical. For example, it was not libel for ESPN to caption a photo “Evel Knievel proves you’re never too old to be a pimp,” since it was (in context) “not intended as a criminal accusation, nor was it reasonably susceptible to such a literal interpretation.” However, it would be defamatory to falsely assert “our dad’s a pimp” or to accuse your dad of “dabbling in the pimptorial arts.” (Real case, but the defendant sons succeeded in a truth defense).

If a blogger starts a post with “Jane, you ignorant slut,” it may imply a want of chastity on Jane’s part. But there is a more likely chance that the Blogger has a good chance of convincing a court this was mere hyperbole and pop cultural reference, not a false statement of fact.

In conclusion, bloggers can be held liable under the same principles of California defamation law. They should be pursued where they cross the line into areas of defamation.

rick-springfield-2jpg-9f6fee6b45633bd5Interesting Lawsuit of the Month: Rick Springfield’s Buttocks Faces Lawsuit 

A women sues performer Rick Springfield for assaulting her with his butt.
She claims during a concert, the singer’s buttocks made contact with her knocking her down and causing “serious and disabling injuries” although oddly she did not see medical help at the time. Nor has she been able to locate any witnesses. Springfield is known for “crowd-walking”, so the possibility of contact with all or part of him is well-known to fans. In fact, it sounds to me like if he quits doing it because of this, a lot of people are going to be upset with a certain someone.

 Quote of the Month

“Never mistake motion for action.” – Ernest Hemingway

Hemmingway