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06 May 2010

A Bold Idea: Extend First Amendment Protections To Blogs & Bloggers

The past few days in Georgia's political blogosphere have seen a lot of discussion surrounding the threats of legal action from GOP gubernatorial candidate Ray McBerry due to information reported both by traditional and new media outlets.

The Georgia General Assembly can remove that gray area by passing legislation that extends First Amendment protections to blogs and bloggers.


McBerry, as you may know, was accused of having an inappropriate sexual relationship with a minor under the age of 18 several years ago. McBerry denies the allegations and threatened lawsuits against any media outlet who repeated the claims.

Many of Georgia's political bloggers, myself included, openly mocked the threat of legal action from McBerry. There are others, though, who are nervous about the possibility of defending their work in court.

Sara, an attorney who runs the site "Going Through The Motions," attempted to assuage those concerns by outlining in four points why Ray McBerry would A.) not file a lawsuit in court; and B.) lose his case if he did file suit.

The legal precedent cited by Sara in her post was New York Times v. Sullivan; which determines, according to her analysis, "that in order for a newspaper to have libeled a public figure, it must have shown actual malice--meaning either the newspaper knew a published statement was untrue or showed a reckless disregard for its truth or falsity."

Still, Sara said, "There is little law out there on the question of whether blogs enjoy the same first amendment protections as 'traditional press' like newspapers in defamation cases."

It is largely presumed that blogs and bloggers are protected under the First Amendment. However, blogs regularly fall into the gray area; and this is one of those times. The Georgia General Assembly can remove that gray area by passing legislation that extends First Amendment protections to blogs and bloggers.

Bloggers, I believe, should enjoy the same First Amendment protections afforded to the traditional press under New York Times v. Sullivan.

Blogs and bloggers play a unique role in disseminating information to the masses. Blogs help foster democracy by regularly holding elected officials and candidates for public office accountable. The threats of lawsuits for publishing that information; for holding public figures accountable would be, I believe, a deterrent to people launching and maintaining blogs in the future.

There is a opportunity here for Georgia lawmakers to show their support for new media by declaring definitively that blogs are as deserving of First Amendment protections as the traditional press. Let's end the ambiguity so that bloggers will have some sort of shield from unfounded charges of libel and slander designed to silence vital discussion and debate in our state.