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Defamation

Carry that Weight: Accused Rapist calls it Harassment. I Suspect it’s Natural Consequences.

Did you see the story last week that Paul Nungesser is suing Columbia University? He’s the student who is accused of sexually assaulting Emma Sulkowicz (and other students), which inspired Emma to create the performance art piece called “Carry that Weight” after he was cleared of responsibility in regards to her alleged rape by the school.

Visual arts major Emma created this piece for her senior thesis where she committed to carrying a mattress everywhere she went as long as she attends the same school as her accused attacker. Paul is suing the school, claiming that “Carry that Weight” is a harassment campaign against him and as a result, its damage to his reputation and job prospects. He also claims that he has been on the receiving end of pervasive threatening behavior by other students who call him a “serial rapist” when he attends school events.

(I must use terms like “accused” and “alleged” because this is a situation where the suspect has not been found guilty of any wrongdoing in a court of law. Please don’t interpret this to mean that I don’t believe Emma or any others who speak out about being sexually assaulted.)

Protester with Placard by WeNews from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Protester with Placard by WeNews from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

This development in this situation leaves me frustrated and emotionally torn. On the one hand, I am a strong advocate of the idea that people are “innocent until proven guilty.” I believe in this ideology because I don’t want to see that justice system manipulated or people being punished based on one person’s word. I believe when a person is accused of a crime, they deserve in their day in court and that it’s the prosecution’s job to build the case against them.

On the other hand, my limited experience with the criminal justice system has taught me that sexual assault cases are very hard to prove. As a lawyer I find myself regularly quoting Tom Cruise’s brilliant line from A Few Good Men: “It doesn’t matter what I believe. It only matters what I can prove.” Sometimes justice can’t be done because the evidence isn’t there to paint a clear enough picture of what happened. That doesn’t mean that the victim isn’t telling the truth. Studies show that very few people lie about being sexually assaulted.

If Paul attacked Emma or any other student (and I believe he did), part of me endorses the idea that he and others like him that get away with sexual assault deserve the natural consequences of their actions. They deserve to have tarnished reputations and to be called out for the wrongdoings that they committed. It’s too easy for a rapist to go unpunished because there isn’t enough physical evidence and/or the statute of limitations has run out. And then they can turn around and victimize the person again by claiming they are being defamed when the victim has the strength encourage to call out their attacker for what they did.

Given that Paul is suing Columbia University and not Emma directly, I think he’s just trying to get money out of the situation. I would not be surprised if he filed this lawsuit in the hopes that the school will pay him a comfortable settlement in exchange for dropping the case.

Bloggers Beware: Lessons from the Crystal Cox Case

(cc) MonsieurLui from Flickr

Many of us got into blogging because we like having a proverbial soapbox we can jump on to share our thoughts with the universe. The recent Crystal Cox case has made me wonder how many bloggers know the legal risk they take when they share their views.

For those of you who missed it, Crystal Cox is an “investigative blogger” in Montana who writes a blog called Bankruptcy Corruption. In one of her posts, she called Kevin Padrick, an attorney in Oregon, “a thug, a thief, and a liar.” Padrick sued Cox for defamation and won . . . $2.5 million!

The interesting thing for bloggers to note is that Cox lives and writes in Montana but she was sued in Oregon and Oregon law applied to the case.

If you write about other people, you open yourself up to the possibility of being sued for defamation or invasion of privacy. These cases are generally based on state laws. The good news is that there isn’t much variation between the laws. The bad news is that there are exceptions.

The really bad news is that the person who claims to have been injured by your blog gets to sue you in the state where they were injured, which is usually their home state. And it’s their home state law that applies. So, if you’re a blogger in Mississippi, and you write about someone in Alaska, and they sue you for defamation, you have to go to Alaska to defend yourself and hire an attorney who can defend you in Alaska. (Another lesson from the Crystal Cox case: don’t be your own attorney!)

Let’s look at the shield law, one of the laws Cox tried to use to defend herself. This is the law journalists invoke to prevent a court from forcing them to reveal an information source. There isn’t one national shield law. There are 40 different state shield laws, and some states don’t have a shield law. Cox tried to use the shield law to defend herself; and in another state, her argument may have held water. But unfortunately for her, the Oregon shield law specifically states that you can’t use the law as a defense in a civil defamation case.

Another challenge surrounding the legalities of blogging is that sometimes the laws are old, really old, as in the-internet-wasn’t-invented-when-the-law-was-written old. In a lot of these cases, the court has to decide how the laws apply to these new situations didn’t exist before we had the internet. You and the other side can propose your interpretation of the law, but there’s no guarantee that the court will accept your interpretation. And you might get really lucky and get a judge who barely knows how to turn on their computer and has no concept of what a blog is.

Someday the laws will be updated to account for the internet and blogging practices. Even when that happens, we will still have to be conscientious of the fact that each state has its own laws, and that we run the risk of being sued in any of the 50 states depending on who and what we write about.

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The Legal Side of Blogging – Part 1 of 4: Can My Blog Get Me Sued?

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I am a law student. In accordance with ABA policy, this blog should not be viewed as legal advice. It is simply my experiences, opinions, and stuff I looked up on the internet.

First Amendment
Image by NomadicEntrepreneur via Flickr

Thanks to the First Amendment, we have the right of free speech in the United States. There are limits on free speech  regarding the time, place, and manner of the speech which is why we can’t shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. The First Amendment also doesn’t protect obscenity or libel.

Speech on the internet is generally protected, including anonymous speech. I don’t understand why people want to speak anonymously in this public forum, but the law protects it.

Americans are very quick to sue people they don’t like, so the real question is, can I be sued and lose because of my blog? A quick search on the database and Google has revealed that bloggers have been successfully sued for their blogs.

Defamation and Libel
Based on case law I read, a blogger can be sued for defamation and libel if they use their blog to make false statements about a public figure. The courts seem to apply a broad definition to “public figure.” If the public figure the blogger talks about in their blog can show that the blogger made a false statement about them and that the statement was made with “actual malice,” then they have a valid claim for defamation and libel.

Conversely, a blogger’s personal opinion is protected by the First Amendment. It’s only when they are making statements of fact or a combination of fact and opinion that they have to be concerned that they could be sued if they are publishing false statements.

Copyright Infringement
A person gets a copyright if they create an original work of authorship that is fixed in a tangible medium. They don’t have to register their work in any database; they just have to create it. Therefore, bloggers should own the copyright for all their posts, unless they previously gave up their copyright rights to someone else. If a blogger posts someone else’s material and claims it as their own, that’s copyright infringement. Writing about the same ideas is ok; stealing someone’s verbiage is not.

I don’t know why anyone would do this – isn’t the purpose of having a blog to express your own views and ideas? I suspect few bloggers are policing the internet looking for people infringing on their work and most aren’t equipped with the resources to file a claim against another blogger for stealing their work. I’m fine with people stealing my verbiage for their blog as long as they include a link back to this site. My guess is most bloggers are equally fine with others quoting them as long as they get the attribution.

You Can Be Sued for Your Comments – Not Sure If You Can Lose
Aaron Wall was sued by Traffic-Power.com when negative comments about the company appeared on Wall’s website, SEOBook.com. Wall opted to remove the comments about Traffic Power instead of spending his time, energy, and money to fight the lawsuit.

I don’t know what the comments about Traffic Power said, but it makes me wonder if other companies will threaten lawsuits against bloggers to remove negative comments about themselves online. Most bloggers probably won’t want to go through the time and hassle of fighting the suit, even when the comments might be protected by the First Amendment. Even if there wasn’t a valid case in this situation, it should serve as a reminder that bloggers are responsible for the comments they allow to be posted on their sites.

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