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Rise in lawsuits against bloggers

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

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No one is suggesting that bloggers should have free rein to publish whatever they want.

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“If you’re slandering, you can be sued whether you have a blog or not,” says Mr. Cox, a blogger himself. “You’re not immune to defamation charges ... just because you’re a citizen speaking your mind.”

Who should educate the bloggers?
There is no consensus, however, on how best to make bloggers aware of their legal responsibilities.

Many lawyers expect bloggers to figure it out themselves.

“If you’re going to be responsible enough to manage a site where people post such things, you should be able to detect when things are defamatory and take them down,” says Margot Stone, the lawyer for the woman who sued Grotke. “The problem is that technology is outpacing the ethical responsibilities. People haven’t thought through the ethics of all this.”

Online communities as well as media activists and lawyers are pushing to ensure that bloggers are aware of their legal rights and responsibilities.

The EFF and the Citizen Media Law Project (CMLP) – an affiliate of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School – offer detailed legal guides for bloggers. Both organizations also help bloggers find legal counsel.

In addition, the CMLP maintains a database of all legal action directed against bloggers. “That way bloggers know they’re not alone,” explains David Ardia, director of the CMLP.

Other citizen-media groups say more proactive support is needed.

Since 2006, the MBA has been working with Media Pro Insurance to create the MBA Media Liability Insurance program.

“We’re coming up with a product that covers defamation, copyright, privacy violations – the same protections as newspapers – for bloggers,” says the group’s Mr. Cox. MBA members will receive a hefty discount on the insurance package, due to be launched at the end of this month. The cheapest coverage for a solo blogger will be $540 a year.

But some bloggers resist the idea.

“I don’t have the money for that kind of thing,” says Kathleen Seidel, a New Hampshire-based blogger who was subpoenaed this spring in connection with another lawsuit against vaccine manufacturers that she had written about on her blog.

Having written several posts about litigation and completed two legal courses at the local community college, Ms. Seidel was able to deflect legal threats against her blog and successfully composed a motion to quash the subpoena.

Grotke, too, was able to convince a Vermont court to dismiss libel charges.

Many bloggers, however, aren’t so fortunate, which is why the online community is searching for ways to protect them. “The effect of intimidation is a real one,” Seidel says.