The federal judge has ruled that a woman who describes herself as an “investigative blogger” is not entitled to First Amendment protection for allegedly defamatory statements she made about an Oregon attorney.

Crystal CoxCrystal Cox (right), a real estate agent and blogger from Eureka, Mont., set up a network of websites, including this one, that criticize the conduct of attorney Kevin Padrick in his role as trustee of the failed financial firm called Summit Accommodators, which collapsed in 2008 amid charges of fraud.

Among Cox’ accusations is that Padrick hired a hitman to kill her, a charge that Padrick vigorously denies. The attorney says that Cox’ allegations have so overwhelmed the search engines that his business is off more than 80% this year. “Google ‘Kevin Padrick’ and you’ll see the first 10 pages are from Crystal Cox,” Padrick told Oregon Live.

Cox, who sarcastically describes herself as an “Unhinged Blogger Exposing Corruption in the US Bankruptcy Courts,” fills her blog with accusations, obscenities and character assassination, tactics which are typical of hate bloggers. “‘Unhinged Blogger’ Crazy Crystal Cox Says that Jeff Manning of the Oregonian is Bought and Paid for AGAIN, oh and Jeff Manning, Oregonian, is an Asshole,” she titled one post. It’s filled with accusations about an investigative reporter for the Oregonian newspaper, none of which are backed by citations. The post is peppered with links to copies of the same article on other websites, most of which are presumably maintained by Cox, as well links to other hate sites that the author has created.

On the other hand, Cox has also assembled a substantial library of documents related to Kevin Padrick and the trust he administers. She presents most of these without comment, challenging her audience to do their own research. We demurred, but we admit that she appears to have done her homework.

In ruling that Cox was not entitled to the protections provided to mainstream news outlets, U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez said the blogger “was not a journalist because she offered no professional qualifications as a journalist or legitimate news outlet. She had no journalism education, credentials or affiliation with a recognized news outlet, proof of adhering to journalistic standards such as editing or checking her facts, evidence she produced an independent product or evidence she ever tried to get both sides of the story,” according to the AP report.

So who’s right in this case? Much as we find Cox’ vendetta-fueled tactics repugnant, we’re more concerned about any efforts to inhibit free speech, even by someone who is clearly a little nuts. However, we are also concerned about attempts to create distinctions between traditional and new media. We’d rather see this case judged as a libel issue, where precedents are clearly established. Why is the distinction between blogger and media outlet even meaningful at a time when properties like Huffington Post and Mashable can go from sideline to superpower in a matter of a couple of years?

There is an intriguing dimension to this case that the court didn’t address: the impact of Cox’ activities on her target’s search engine performance. The case illustrates that a motivated and energetic blogger can significantly damage someone else’s reputation by surrounding their name with negative keywords in search results. Is that a form of libel? Could Google be compelled to change its search algorithm as a consequence of a First Amendment court decision? Do we even want to go there?

Comments

comments

This entry was posted on Wednesday, December 14th, 2011 at 10:26 am and is filed under Best/Worst, Citizen Journalism, Future of Journalism, Journalism, OnlineMedia. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

5 Comments

  1. December 14, 2011 @ 6:43 pm



    I agree that the court is overreaching a bit, by expanding its ruling beyond libel and into freedom of speech. If a “journalist” from a “main stream news outlet” published the exact same words as Ms. Cox, wouldn’t both the journalist and outlet be subject to the same tests of libel?

    As for the reputation damage, that is an even trickier one. How does one assess damages? From an SEO perspective, could a court order someone guilty of libel to hand over their domain name to the plaintiff?

    We live in interesting times, don’t we Paul?

    Posted by Ron Ploof
  2. December 14, 2011 @ 9:57 pm



    […] Do Bloggers – Even Crazy Ones – Deserve First Amendment Protection? (newspaperdeathwatch.com) […]

  3. January 2, 2012 @ 1:32 pm



    […] (mediadecoder.blogs.nytimes.com)The Crystal Cox Case and Bloggers as Journalists (eff.org)Do Bloggers – Even Crazy Ones – Deserve First Amendment Protection? (newspaperdeathwatch.com)Pam Reeves: Think before you blog (knoxnews.com)Share […]

  4. January 7, 2012 @ 6:43 pm



    I also think this should have gone the libel route. If you dig up news and report it, you are a”reporter”. I was a member of the press for years and the line between a blogger and an online newsletter are pretty blurred. We KNEW the lines when it came to libel and slander and made sure to stay within them. Having judges trying to pick and choose who is and is not a journalist is dicey. However, we may get into some of it anyway as states pass ill-advised “shield laws” that permit reporters to refuse to divulge sources to law-enforcement.

    Posted by James A. Cooley
  5. January 24, 2012 @ 1:14 am



    The effort to delineate “journalists” as either being credentialed or working for a corporate publishers misses the mark. Pamphleteers such as Thomas Paine would not qualify under the judge’s interpretation — no J schooling, published on his own, wrote books. Yet he was precisely what the First Amendment was all about. And Crystal Cox is the modern day counterpart of Paine.

    Posted by Corky Boyd