For our fellow bloggers out there, a brief primer on libel and blogging.

The Libel Defense Resource Center has an FAQ page. Here’s an excerpt:

What is Libel?

Libel and slander are legal claims for false statements of fact about a person that are printed, broadcast, spoken or otherwise communicated to others. Libel generally refers to statements or visual depictions in written or other permanent form, while slander refers to oral statements and gestures. The term defamation is often used to encompass both libel and slander.

In order for the person about whom a statement is made to recover for libel, the false statement must be defamatory, meaning that it actually harms the reputation of the other person, as opposed to being merely insulting or offensive.

The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must have been published to at least one other person (other than the subject of the statement) and must be “of and concerning” the plaintiff. That is, those hearing or reading the statement must identify it specifically with the plaintiff.

The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must also be a false statement of fact. Since name-calling, hyperbole, or exaggerated and heated words cannot be proven true or false, they cannot be the subject of a libel or slander claim.

Eugene Volokh, who teaches free speech law and other topics at the UCLA Law School, notes:

If it is libelous to say “[X] beats his wife,” why wouldn’t it be libelous to say “[X] is a traitor”? I’m not asking out of any intent to litigate, but rather as a sudden curiosity, especially at a moment when [a certain person] is walking around saying things like: “The inevitable logic of the liberal position is to be for treason.” Since treason is a far more serious crime, why is it far easier to accuse people of it?

A great question, and here’s the answer: Libel law punishes false and defamatory statements that are likely to be perceived as statements of fact. “X beats his wife” is usually likely to be perceived as a statement of fact (though in some contexts, for instance in a comedy routine, or something that’s clearly a hypothetical, it might not be). “X is a traitor” may be perceived as a statement of fact in some situations, e.g., “During World War II, X was a traitor” or even “During his stay in Baghdad, journalist X committed treason.” Both of these statements tend to suggest that the speaker knows some facts about X that the speaker is capturing using the term “treason.” The statement is defamatory, and if it’s false (and the other requirements of libel law are met), then it’s libelous.

But sometimes the word “traitor” doesn’t carry with it a factual allegation — rather, it expresses a value judgment. “The inevitable logic of the liberal position is to be for treason,” or “liberals are traitors,” even when applied to a particular person, doesn’t suggest that the person in fact supports treason, or has committed treason. Rather, it suggests that, given the facts that the speaker and the listeners both know about the person — the person is a liberal, the person has written this-and-such, and so on — the person is morally tantamount to a traitor, or would support treason if he were only consistent. “Is to be for treason” or “are traitors” in this context are statements of pure opinion, pure evaluative judgment. They aren’t factual allegations…

Statutes in each state regulate the practice of law. In California, those include:

California Business and Professions Code

6125. No person shall practice law in California unless the person is an active member of the State Bar.

6126. (a) Any person advertising or holding himself or herself out as practicing or entitled to practice law or otherwise practicing law who is not an active member of the State Bar, or otherwise authorized pursuant to statute or court rule to practice law in this state at the time of doing so, is guilty of a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in a county jail or by a fine of up to one thousand dollars ($1,000), or by both that fine and imprisonment…

Apparently, in some states, representing oneself as “Legal Department” also constitutes representing oneself as entitled to practice law, and must be accompanied by the name of the person who is an active member of the State Bar.

Finally, John Hiler, co-founder of a Manhattan software consulting firm which specializes in building easy-to-update websites, offered a succinct code of ethics in April, 2002:

A Living, Breathing Code of Ethics for Bloggers Everwhere…

by John Hiler

1. Amateur Journalists are inherently biased. What’s crucial is not pure objectivity, but full disclosure. It is the responsibility of an Amateur Journalist to fully disclose his or her agenda and background somewhere on their site. If a particular aspect of their background is especially relevant to a particular subject, that bias should be highlighted in any article on that subject.

2. Caveats are critical online. Accuracy is still important, but sometimes it’s ok to print information that you haven’t confirmed with multiple sources. Just make sure that you label it as such. Never ever publish information that you know not to be true. And if there’s any doubt as to the accuracy of the information, caveat it clearly so that it’s clear.

3. Blogging doesn’t magically make you immune from Libel and Slander. If your article isn’t clearly marked as opinion, you should give the subject of your piece a chance to respond in print. This means dropping them an email or picking up the phone.

Disclaimer: We at XGW are neither legal experts nor offering any advice. We found these items interesting and thought our readers might also.

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