We’re all having fun rummaging through the US Government’s dirty linen revealed by WikiLeaks this week via the new “Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy” website. There’s a lot of excellent research material in there, no doubt. But it comes with a catch: a lot of that information may lead inexperienced activists to make rash and unfounded statements about people whose names are revealed in these cables – and that opens the door to charges of “libel” being filed against organizations under whose name this amateur analysis appears.
“Libel occurs when a false and defamatory statement about an identifiable person is published to a third party, causing injury to the subject’s reputation. Each state creates its own body of libel law, although the First Amendment requires plaintiffs or prosecutors to prove fault before a news organization can be held liable for defamatory communications.
“Generally, courts consider six different legal elements in libel cases: the defamatory nature of the communication, how it was published, the truth or falsity of the claims, whether it is “of and concerning” an individual, reputational harm caused and the degree of fault. The defendant in a libel claim also may have specific defenses available, often including anti-SLAPP statutes.
“Companies can also bring suits for product disparagement. Criminal libel charges also pop up from time to time, and some suits are over the infliction of emotional distress. Journalists should know some basic tips for avoiding libel suits.”
OK, so you’ve read the “First Amendment Handbook” and you think you’re free and clear. Not so fast, Skywalker; you forgot one tiny detail: YOU AREN’T CONSIDERED TO BE A “REPORTER” – you’re “just” a “blogger”! And so you and your group may not be covered under the protections of the US Constitution that cover the big fat butts of capitalist news media “journalists”. [Oh, damn, damn, DAMN! Did we just commit libel? No? Whew!]
Blogging is a relatively new activity and has only in the past few years been on the receiving end of some very harsh prosecution by governmental entities and private citizens. A slew of cases are headed up the chain of the legal process and may receive legal review at the Supreme Court level in the near future, but at this time, “bloggers” and “citizen journalists” are living in a legal grey zone in which they can easily find themselves suddenly drowning in deep legal waters, in which they could face long jail terms and huge fines depending on which way the legal wrecking ball bounces in these upcoming cases.
Take a look at the Blog Law Blog website to see what we mean. Here you can read about how bloggers during the recent blizzard in Massachusetts could have faced a year in jail for violating the State’s emergency travel ban during the blizzard. The “news media” were excepted from the ban – but the writer of the blog, who is considered to be something of a legal expert in this area of the law, wonders “[did] that mean bloggers and citizen journalists [could drive during the emergency driving ban] in Massachusetts? Are they news media?” [Source: Blog Law Blog, “Blizzard of Blog Law” by Eric E. Johnson, 8 February, 2013]
While we were reading some of the Tweets announcing new discoveries of scandalous revelations in the new WikiLeaks cables, we found three instances in which WikiActivists has made claims about the content of cables that we found to be completely wrong, misidentifying the government that was being referred to in the cables as well as one case in which a well-known journalist’s mention in a cable was mischaracterized as showing his “bias”, when the cable in fact implied that his attitude toward the subject at hand was unknown.
The grey zone surrounding the First Amendment rights of bloggers and citizen journalists is a free-fire-zone for political censorship of activists whose opinions the government and the capitalist class in general do not like. Even the right wingers have come under heavy fire along these lines: infamous right-wing and neo-fascist hero Hal Turner has been jailed for statements he’s made on the Internets.
He also won an acquittal in that case – but he’s a right-wing nut and you are (presumably) not; and it’s the anti-capitalist and left- wing anarchist and socialist organizations that are at greatest risk in these cases, as their opposition to the capitalist system places them outside the boundaries of the law in the eyes of the capitalist class. The capitalist class would love to “make an example” out of us, and they aren’t missing a chance to wail on hacktivists of the left like Jeremy Hammond and Aaron Swartz, stretching (and breaking) their own laws in order to crush those who oppose the “inalienable rights” of the big capitalist property owners.
The fact is, “citizen journalists” are not necessarily protected by the First Amendment in the same way that “professional journalists” are. So take the time to do a little studying of Libel Law and make sure that the material being published by your group doesn’t inadvertently dump your organization into the hands of a zealous prosecutor or a self-righteous billionaire or capitalist politician. You will save yourselves a lot of grief by educating yourself about and keeping up with the latest developments in this area of the law.
Friends of WikiLeaks Chicago