Since 2004, 159 court actions have targeted citizen journalists for libel and other charges.
When Christopher Grotke answered a late-night knock on the door, he did not expect to find the deputy sheriff on his doorstep serving notice that he was being sued. Nor was he prepared for the charge: libel.
Someone had posted a comment on his citizen-journalism website, iBrattleboro.com, stating that a woman in Brattleboro, Vt., was having an extramarital affair. The accused woman then sued Mr. Grotke and his website cofounder for failing to edit or delete the comment.
The blogging community increasingly is subject to lawsuits and threats of legal action running the gamut from subpoenas to cease-and-desist notices. Since blogging became popular in about 2004, there have been 159 civil and criminal court actions involving bloggers, according to the nonprofit Media Law Resource Center (MLRC) in New York. Seven cases have resulted in verdicts against bloggers, with cumulative penalties totaling $18.5 million. Many more legal actions never result in trial.
The result? A stifling of free speech in a medium providing more comprehensive and diverse opportunities for commentary than ever before, digital-rights activists, media lawyers, and bloggers say.
“There is a chilling effect of a cease-and-desist letter or a legal threat that claims an aspect of a blogger’s work could lead to liability, even when those claims are not well grounded,” says Kurt Opsahl, a senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a nonprofit in San Francisco that defends digital rights.
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