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Cracking Down on Bloggers

Yesterday’s edition of USA Today published an article entitled “Courts are asked to crack down on bloggers, websites” and subheaded “Those attacked online are filing libel lawsuits.” Written by Laura Parker, it details an increasing number of lawsuits launched by companies and individuals against bloggers.

It begins by discussing Rafe Banks, a lawyer in Georgia, who became involved in an ugly dispute with a client over how to defend him. The client, David Milum, fired Banks and demanded that the lawyer refund a $3,000 fee. Banks refused.

Milum eventually was acquitted. Ordinarily, that might have been the last Banks ever heard about his former client. But then Milum started a blog.

In May 2004, Banks was stunned to learn that Milum’s blog was accusing the lawyer of bribing judges on behalf of drug dealers. At the end of one posting, Milum wrote, “Rafe, don’t you wish you had given back my $3,000 retainer?”

Banks, saying the postings were false, sued Milum. And last January, Milum became the first blogger in the USA to lose a libel suit, according to the Media Law Resource Center in New York, which tracks litigation involving bloggers. Milum was ordered to pay Banks $50,000.

According to USA Today this case reflects how blogs are increasingly being targeted by those who feel harmed by blog attacks.

In the past two years, more than 50 lawsuits stemming from postings on blogs and website message boards have been filed across the nation. The suits have spawned a debate over how the ‘blogosphere’ and its revolutionary impact on speech and publishing might change libel law.

Legal analysts say the lawsuits are challenging a mind-set that has long surrounded blogging: that most bloggers essentially are “judgment-proof” because they — unlike traditional media such as newspapers, magazines and television outlets — often are ordinary citizens who don’t have a lot of money. Recent lawsuits by Banks and others who say they have had their reputations harmed or their privacy violated have been aimed not just at cash awards but also at silencing their critics.

Bloggers have long assumed that they were immune to charges of libel, but it seems this is increasingly being proven a false assumption. The article goes on to detail several cases where bloggers were sued for libel. Many of the comments were fallout from sexual escapades where scorned women went online to post libelous comments about former lovers. The recent dispute (involving the now-dismissed lawsuit) between Ligonier Ministries and Frank Vance was also mentioned.

Robert Cox, founder and president of the Media Bloggers Association, which has 1,000 members, says the recent wave of lawsuits means that bloggers should bone up on libel law. “It hasn’t happened yet, but soon, there will be a blogger who is successfully sued and who loses his home,” he says. “That will be the shot heard round the blogosphere.” With the scandalous information being posted online, it truly is only a matter of time before a blogger loses all he has, and perhaps reasonably so. “Susan Crawford, a professor at Cardozo Law School in New York who specializes in media and Internet issues, says the ease with which false postings can be corrected instantly, among other things, will force judges to reconsider how to measure the damage that is done to a plaintiff’s reputation.” A person’s online reputation is becoming increasingly important as prospective employers now routinely search online for information about a potential employee. The same is true of a potential mate. A few libelous comments online has the potential to have devastating and far-reaching effects.

“People take advantage of the anonymity to say things in public they would never say to anyone face-to-face,” Cox says. “That’s where you get these horrible comments. This is standard operating procedure.”

This is an interesting article and one that raises some important concerns. I think it raises questions that are of particular importance to Christian bloggers.

Bloggers perceive a great freedom when they write; they sometimes perceive that they have immunity from standards of right and wrong. Far too often people post something online that they would never say face-to-face. What would be shameful in direct communication is standard fare for many blogs. Most bloggers learn quickly that the titillating and the tantalizing generate buzz, comments and visitors. While the vast majority of bloggers are harmless, writing about only what is of direct importance to them, there are many others who seek only to discourage and destroy.

As Christians, we are called to a high standard—we are called to holiness. We are not to push the limits of what is decent and what is true, but to serve and to be a blessing to others. We are not to ask “Is this libelous? Will I be sued if I publish this?”, but we are to ask “Will this serve the person I am writing about? Will this serve the church? Will this bring glory to God? Will this defend the truth?”

The blogosphere is still immature and, in many ways, untested. Blogs are a new and growing phenomena, but they are also a new and growing concern. It will not be long before the courts begin, justly I think, to crack down on bloggers who are libelous towards others. The proverbial “shot heard round the blogosphere” is probably not far off. As painful as this may be for those involved, I suspect it will prove beneficial to the blogosphere.

My encouragement to my fellow Christian bloggers is to ensure that we are not among those who are sure to make headlines by being involved in these cases. We have an opportunity to shine a light even in the blogosphere. How tragic it would be to read headlines in national newspapers providing the lurid details of what one Christian had done to another or said about another. Let us be certain that we constantly seek to serve and that we pursue holiness rather than popularity. Let us set the standard for respect and fellowship. Let us take the better path and show our love for God in our love for one another.