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Cases holding blogs liable for libel set dangerous precedent

The next time you’re updating your blog, you better be careful what you say. You could get sued.

According to USA Today, Georgia lawyer Rafe Banks got in an argument with David Milum, a potential client charged with drunken driving. When Milum and Banks couldn’t agree on a defensive strategy against the charge, Milum fired Banks and demanded he return his $3,000 retainer. When Banks refused to return the money, Milum took it upon himself to say derogatory things on his blog about Banks. Banks sued and was awarded $50,000.

While $50,000 isn’t exactly a lot of money these days, it appears the sum was just the beginning of a slippery slope. The slope is quite slippery – $11.3 million buys a lot of grease.

That’s the amount of money Sue Scheff of Parents Universal Resource Experts Inc. was awarded by a jury. Carey Bock, the defendant in the case, was found responsible for damages stemming from comments she made on an Internet bulletin board frequented by those likely to enlist the services of Parents Universal, which runs a controversial chain of boarding schools intended to help troubled teens. Bock called Scheff and her company “crooks,” “con artists” and “frauds.” Bock had no attorney at trial – she couldn’t afford one – and she even offered to settle the Scheff claim out of court for $35,000. Despite the fact that Bock had been transplanted by Hurricane Katrina and essentially had no wealth, Scheff decided to pursue anyway.

This precedent is extraordinarily problematic. In order to sue successfully for libel, the plaintiff must prove they suffered damages due to a statement. This generally means the source of the statement has to be reputable. The idea that a blog or Internet bulletin board could be viewed as a reputable source of information is quite troubling.

Blogs are popular because they give people the ability to say things in a public forum and communicate with friends – not because they are reputable news sources. It’s hard to understand how there can be damages if the source isn’t trustworthy. Blogs and bulletin boards are patently untrustworthy – they aren’t intended to be objective.

Either the freedom of speech can be infringed upon because some people don’t like the viewpoints of others, or a very small number of businesses can lose a very small number of foolish customers who believe everything they read on the Internet.