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Rise in lawsuits against bloggers

Since 2004, 159 court actions have targeted citizen journalists for libel and other charges.

By Huma YusufContributor for The Christian Science Monitor / July 16, 2008



When Christopher Grotke answered a late-night knock on the door, he did not expect to find the deputy sheriff on his doorstep serving notice that he was being sued. Nor was he prepared for the charge: libel.

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Someone had posted a comment on his citizen-journalism website, iBrattleboro.com, stating that a woman in Brattleboro, Vt., was having an extramarital affair. The accused woman then sued Mr. Grotke and his website cofounder for failing to edit or delete the comment.

The blogging community increasingly is subject to lawsuits and threats of legal action running the gamut from subpoenas to cease-and-desist notices. Since blogging became popular in about 2004, there have been 159 civil and criminal court actions involving bloggers, according to the nonprofit Media Law Resource Center (MLRC) in New York. Seven cases have resulted in verdicts against bloggers, with cumulative penalties totaling $18.5 million. Many more legal actions never result in trial.

The result? A stifling of free speech in a medium providing more comprehensive and diverse opportunities for commentary than ever before, digital-rights activists, media lawyers, and bloggers say.

“There is a chilling effect of a cease-and-desist letter or a legal threat that claims an aspect of a blogger’s work could lead to liability, even when those claims are not well grounded,” says Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit in San Francisco that defends digital rights.

Bloggers faced with legal threats often deem it easier to remove potentially offensive content rather than undertake the difficulty and expense of defending themselves, he adds.

Abroad, more than 60 bloggers arrested
Bloggers face much bigger threats overseas, particularly if they criticize governments or point to human rights abuses.

Since 2003, 64 bloggers have been arrested around the world – with Egypt, China, and Iran initiating more than half of those arrests, according to the World Information Access Report, published last month by the University of Washington. By contrast, the United States has arrested two in that period.

Still, online commentators face risks in the United States.

“In the developed world, bloggers can be punished through lawsuits,” writes Philip Howard, a communications professor at the University of Washington, in an e-mail.
The number of lawsuits is growing, says Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association (MBA), a US-based group devoted to protecting citizen journalists. “As blogging expands and more people are aware of it, the lawyers are not far behind.”

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