California bloggers get defamation immunity

Posted by Mark Raby

San Francisco (CA) - Thanks to a California Supreme Court ruling, defamation can now be spread throughout the blogosphere without any legal consequences. The decision overturned a lower court's decision and makes bloggers immune from libel lawsuits for re-posting content that was first published in another source.

The legal decision was made as part of a lawsuit from two doctors who went after a blogger for reiterating defamatory statements against them, which were first published elsewhere.

The ruling corresponds to long-standing legal precedents, which say that people can't be held liable for impugning someone simply by quoting what someone else said. The issue had never been legally questioned in California for how much that immunity reaches to the cyber world.

So-called "professional blogs", like Engadget and The Huffington Report, and the one involved, Humantics Foundation, convey themselves as news outlets, where hearsay defamation is more of a gray line. Traditional publications, no matter oftheir size, can be the target of defamation suits and can be held liable for claims they cannot prove. For example, a jury in Suburban Chicago recently awarded Illinois Supreme County Justice Robert Thomas $7 million in such a suit: Thomas accused a columnist of the Kane County Chronicle of publishing articles that "were untrue and damaged his reputation." The newspaper was not able to prove its claims as it chose not to reveal its sources.

At the forefront of the Court's decision was the fact that Congress has not yet comprehensively identified the different means of communication and reporting on the Internet. Until then, bloggers will just be held as individual users and not news publications. "Requiring providers, users, and courts to account for the nuances of common law defamation, and all the various ways they might play out in the Internet environment, is a Herculean assignment that we are reluctant to impose," said the court in its ruling.