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 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?
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.