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Court extends print and media protections online

In a court decision that was largely overlooked by the mainstream media, a New York Supreme Court judge has issued a ruling in a libel case that extends the same speech protections to online journalists that their print, radio, and TV colleagues have enjoyed since the famous Sullivan v. New York Times decision of 1964.

More important, it means that states, politicians and powerful corporate entities will have a much harder time taking online journalists to court in the United States for statements that may have been made in the United States, or even in other countries. The decision also offers the protection of the First Amendment of the US Constitution to any journalistic website in the world that might find itself sued for libel in a US court.

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The case in question concerned the National Bank of Mexico against Narconews.com, a Mexican website that covers the drug wars in Latin America. The "Bank," also known as Banamex and now a part of Citigroup, sued a Mexican newspaper editor and Narconews.com for publishing stories that alleged its then-president was linked to narcotics trafficking.

The bank sued in New York because it claimed newspaper editor Mario Menendez and website editor Al Giordano made libelous statements at public forums in New York. It also claimed that eight articles on the Narconews.com site were libelous, and since narconews.com was registered with a Post Office box in New York (although it is based in Mexico), it could sue the website.

If Banamex had succeeded in its libel claim, it would have meant that any individual, organization, or state could sue in the US an online journalist in any part of the world for stories published on a website, even if that website was not in the US. It would have created an enormous chill because, as some experts have argued, it would have deterred journalists from reporting online about important issues in their countries.

When rendering her decision, New York Supreme Court Judge Paula Omansky, cited the "heightened protection of the First Amendment" of the Sullivan v. New York Times decision that established the press freedoms known so well today. This was the first time any court had extended those protections to the Web.

But the decision also had ramifications for US online journalists. In her decision, the judge wrote, "Since principles of defamation law may be applied to the Internet ... this court determines that Narco News, its website, and the writers who post information, are entitled to all the First Amendment protections accorded a newspaper-magazine or journalist in defamation suits ...." This means that anyone suing online journalists would have to prove they knowingly lied or were deliberately malicious - the same standards that are used with traditional media.

Basically, it offers the same protections enjoyed by newspapers like the New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor to all online journalists, no matter how small their websites, if they can show that they were reporting on a matter of public concern, and did so without malice.

And as First Amendment scholar Paul McMasters of the Freedom Forum said in an interview with the Boston Phoenix, what is most encouraging is that the judge's ruling "recognized that the Constitution does not specify who may - or may not - be a journalist. ... Because the First Amendment prohibits the definition of a journalist, just about anybody with a website, it seems to me, can define themselves as a journalist entitled to the protection of Times v. Sullivan. And that, to me, is a good thing," Mr. McMasters said in the interview with Mr. Kennedy.

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Banamex says it is still considering whether it will appeal the decision to a higher state court.


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