Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Shield Me!

It is ironic that today, when I nervously "republished" in this blog Robert Greenwald's view that Starbucks is purportedly anti-union, I should find not one but two articles about the legal perils of blogging.  Since I am a copyright lawyer who also knows my way around defamation law, I try to be careful only to express opinions.  It probably doesn't hurt that only a handful of people read this blog too so my risk of being sued is very small.  However others have not been so lucky.

The WSJ reports that one blogger is being sued for defamation in New Jersey and is trying to invoke that state's shield law.  The NYT in a blog discusses a proposal to expand NY shield law to blogs such that any "journalist" would be covered even if she does not earn a living from the writing.  Sewell Chan, in this NYT blog, says:

The bill under consideration would expand the scope of the law to include “journalist bloggers,” with a blog defined as “a Web site or Web page that contains an online journal containing news, comments and offers hyperlinks provided by the writer.” 

What constitutes a "journalist"?  If I discuss a newsworthy issue such as the appointment of a woman to the Supreme Court or the allegations against Starbucks, am I a journalist?  What if my blog is a mixture of that type of commentary with personal anecdotes about mothers-in-law?  Would that eliminate my status as a "journalist" and if so, wouldn't that also make some columnists of the LA Times like Chris Erskine and Sandy Banks (although Sandy always manages to get some social commentary into her columns even if they report her personal stories) ineligible for the shield law?  

The internet has changed the way we approach news.  Blogs by "professional" journalists are common and "facts" get posted on the internet without the normal checks that journalists are required to do.  My experience with the TV news the other night was a good example.  I was convinced that the internet government website had the correct information and was frustrated that the TV news show would not confirm the magnitude of the earthquake.  I have to believe that they were following their procedures and would not report the size of the quake until they had an official confirmation from their USGS source.  The extension of shield laws to internet "reporting" therefore is tricky when the facts on the internet are not necessarily the facts.   Certainly something to think (and blog) about.

BTW Starbucks:  I really am your biggest fan and customer.  You can do no wrong in my book! (Please don't sue me.)

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