Over 40 states have shield laws that protect journalists from revealing information about the sources used during their reporting.
This is all well and good until you get into the tricky business of actually defining who a journalist is. Someone reporting for CNN? No brainer. Except for jaded, we all agree he or she is a journalist.
But what about someone reporting for a new startup with a part time staff of three? Or the lone blogger who digs deep into one particular subject?
In Oregon, a judge has decided that shield laws only apply to those who are officially part of an established media organization (again, defining what that might mean leaves us scratching our heads).
Via the Seattle Weekly:
A U.S. District Court judge in Portland has drawn a line in the sand between “journalist” and “blogger.” And for Crystal Cox, a woman on the latter end of that comparison, the distinction has cost her $2.5 million…
…Cox runs several law-centric blogs, like industrywhistleblower.com, judicialhellhole.com, and obsidianfinancesucks.com, and was sued by investment firm Obsidian Finance Group in January for defamation, to the tune of $10 million, for writing several blog posts that were highly critical of the firm and its co-founder Kevin Padrick.
Representing herself in court, Cox had argued that her writing was a mixture of facts, commentary and opinion (like a million other blogs on the web) and moved to have the case dismissed. Dismissed it wasn’t, however, and after throwing out all but one of the blog posts cited by Obsidian Financial, the judge ruled that this single post was indeed defamatory because it was presented, essentially, as more factual in tone than her other posts, and therefore a reasonable person could conclude it was factual.
The judge ruled against Cox on that post and awarded $2.5 million to the investment firm.
Now here’s where the case gets more important: Cox argued in court that the reason her post was more factual was because she had an inside source that was leaking her information. And since Oregon is one of 40 U.S. states including Washington with media shield laws, Cox refused to divulge who her source was.
But without revealing her source Cox couldn’t prove that the statements she’d made in her post were true and therefore not defamation, or attribute them to her source and transfer the liability…
…The judge in Cox’s case, however, ruled that the woman did not qualify for shield-law protection not because of anything she wrote, but because she wasn’t employed by an official media establishment.
From the opinion by U.S. District Judge Marco A. Hernandez:
… although defendant is a self-proclaimed “investigative blogger” and defines herself as “media,” the record fails to show that she is affiliated with any newspaper, magazine, periodical, book, pamphlet, news service, wire service, news or feature syndicate, broadcast station or network, or cable television system. Thus, she is not entitled to the protections of the law.