This past week our class completed a News University course through the Poynter Institute about media law and also listened to a lecture by Dr. Kathy Olson, a professor of journalism and communication at Lehigh University. Both the online course and the lecture concentrated on three areas of attention for bloggers: libel, invasion of privacy, and copyright infringement.
Libel is a form of written defamation in which a defendant publishes a false statement against a plaintiff. According to the News U course, five points must be met for the claim of libel to be actionable. First, the defendant must publish a libelous statement, meaning the statement must have been seen by at least one other person. This issue becomes important for those using the internet because private emails between two people could be considered libelous or false information published on a website that the publisher doesn’t think anyone looks at can also be libel. The statement must also be false. Truth is the only absolute defense from a libel claim. Even quoting someone else’s false statement can be considered libel. The statement must be about the plaintiff, meaning the plaintiff must be identifiable from what the libelous statement says. The libelous statement must also harm the reputation of the defendant, whether socially or business-related. The statement must cause damage to the defendant’s reputation and cannot merely be offensive if no negative effect results. According to the online course, and further explained by Dr. Olson, there are some people who are libel-proof because nothing someone can say about them can damage their reputation anymore than it already is. Dr. Olson used the example of Adolf Hitler. Though he is also dead so cannot sue for libel, were he alive, his reputation is damaged beyond repair so that nothing someone could say would make a difference in anyone’s mind to harm his reputation further. Dr. Olson also discussed remarks that were libelous per se, meaning they were libelous on their face and not a lot has to be done to prove they are libelous. An example of this is saying some committed a crime. For example, an article by Eileen Ambrose discusses Courtney Love’s involvement in a libel case after she falsely accused a clothing designer of being a prostitute. Prostitution is a crime as well as an act considered highly immoral in society, so this claim would be libelous per se. The last element to prove libel is that there must be some level of fault by the defendant, whether it was negligence in investigating sources or actual malice, as is required in libel cases for public officials.
Invasion of privacy consists of false light, commercial misappropriation, intrusion upon seclusion, and publication of private facts. False light is writing a false statement against someone that could be considered offensive. There does not have to be damage done to the person’s reputation, just the falsity of the claim. Commercial misappropriation is using someone’s image or name without permission for your commercial benefit. For intrusion upon seclusion, the plaintiff must show that he or she has a reasonable expectation of privacy and that the intrusion would be considered offensive. The offender does not have to publish his or her findings, the intrusion alone is enough to being legal action. Lastly, publication of private facts is when a person publishes private information about someone else that is highly offensive and is not of legitimate public concern.
The final issue addressed was copyright infringement. The owner of the work retains the right to reproduce the work, distribute it, perform it, create deviations from it, etc. Using someone else’s work without permission is copyright infringement. Under fair use, people can use another’s work for educational purposes, for commentary or critique, or news reporting. A copyright case must show that the offender copied a protected work. The owner can receive damages based on loss of profit suffered from the infringement and even additional statutory charges for each offense.
There are ways for bloggers to avoid lawsuits. To avoid libel, a blogger should look into his or her sources before publishing any information about another person, but especially when it is negative information. Even though not many people may be reading our blogs outside of class, because the blogs are open to anyone on the internet, the students in this class must also avoid publishing libelous statements. Also, though bloggers are protected from being sued based on what others comment on their blogs without the blog owner’s knowledge, for a small blog like the ones for this class, monitoring other people’s comments would be a good idea. To avoid copyright, we should not post anything that is not originally ours without permission from it originator. Though my blog centers around commenting on grammar mistakes, I need to be careful when posting pictures that do not critique the work itself to avoid legal trouble for copyright infringement. To avoid both libel and copyright infringement, owners of blogs should be ready to publish retractions for what they say or what is posted by other people. A blogger will not have too many problems if he or she monitors what people post on his or her blog and takes down anything that doesn’t meet legal limits.
Blogs are unique from traditional print because once something is printed on the web, anyone can see it. There is automatically access to anyone who wants it. Also, many people think that the internet is a free for all and that anything is up for grabs. This is a problem with copyrighted information because a lot of internet users don’t consider if something is copyrighted, but with other printed medium, they would. Because blogs allow comments, it is important to monitor comments so that you as the blog owner are facilitating unethical activity.