Bloggers Beginning To Covet Coverage
By Douglas S. Malan
October 27, 2008
Maybe it’s not so easy to start up a blog and share your opinions with the world.
The evolution of journalism has opened the door for bloggers to become a more significant part of the mainstream press by breaking news stories and providing commentary. With that increased power comes a greater threat of legal action from people who are targets of criticism.
In response, the Media Bloggers Association, a non-profit group based in New Rochelle, N.Y., that promotes “citizen journalism,” recently announced a program that will provide bloggers insurance against threats of libel lawsuits, copyright claims, invasion of privacy accusations and other potential land mines.
But Connecticut lawyers in the blogosphere disagree about the need for additional insurance or any such insurance against legal actions that arise from their postings.
“My thought is that [additional insurance] is a good idea,” said Ryan C. McKeen, an associate at Leone, Throwe, Teller & Nagle in East Hartford and the head blogger at www.aconnecticutlawblog.com. “I always write with liability in mind. I’m more concerned about people taking posts as legal advice.”
McKeen also is sensitive to the comments that come through his blog. Because of filters he has activated, comments cannot be posted until he, as the web site’s administrator, approves them. If he were to purchase an additional policy, McKeen could allow readers to post comments in real-time without a review.
“I had kicked around the idea of starting a Connecticut law message board,” McKeen said. “One of the reasons that I haven’t is because of liability concerns, especially libel. Liability insurance may cause me to rethink that idea.”
Media Bloggers Association members have the opportunity to purchase insurance through Axis Insurance, with premiums starting at around $500 and increasing depending on risk factors. Bloggers writing about local government or the pharmaceutical industry will have higher premiums than those writing about entertainment. Axis is considered the largest underwriter of media liability insurance in the world.
The policy includes a $2,500 deductible and covers up to $100,000 per claim.
The insured also will have access to a legal hotline operated by Chicago-based Sonnenschein, Nath & Rosenthal, considered one of the top media defense firms in America. The MBA program also includes on online course in media law developed in partnership with The Poynter Institute and David Ardia, who is affiliated Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
“The past few years have seen unprecedented changes in the media landscape,” Robert Cox, co-founder and president of the Media Bloggers Association said in a written statement. “From a handful of bloggers in 2000 to tens of millions today, bloggers have been granted full press credentials, broken major news stories, and dethroned high-profile politicians and media figures. With that success has come greater scrutiny and the inevitable rise in legal threats facing bloggers.”
From a blogging lawyer’s perspective, the legal concerns include legal malpractice, along with libelous and defamatory comments. A regular feature of lawyers’ blogs is a disclaimer explaining that the blog is meant for informational purposes and should not be taken as legal advice, nor does any interaction constitute the formation of an attorney-client relationship.
Still, blogging liability is a matter of some concern for some Connecticut firms. One blogger who requested anonymity said he believed his firm’s umbrella insurance policy covered his web postings, but he did not feel comfortable discussing the specific legalities. He has not considered purchasing additional insurance.
But Stamford attorney Sergei Lemberg doesn’t understand the fuss and worry, and he has yet to hear a good explanation as to why he should be concerned about his postings on www.lemonjustice.com. There he discusses issues related to lemon laws and reveals problems with certain products and manufacturers that come to light through cases he and others have prosecuted.
He says he’s careful not to post specific information about his clients and makes it clear through a disclaimer that his site does not provide legal advice. Otherwise, the ability to sling some arrows responsibly “is what this country is all about. We live in a society where we can criticize people.”
For Lemberg, automobile manufacturers often are the target, but none of them has ever contacted him about his posts. He discounts the need for insurance protection for a blog.
A Connecticut Case
But lawsuits against bloggers are a reality.
The New York-based Media Law Resource Center (MLRC) documented all lawsuits against bloggers filed in American courts as of 2006, tracking nearly 50. The lone case in Connecticut, Bell vs. Shah, was transferred to Florida where it was ultimately dismissed, as were many of the lawsuits. Some of the cases included allegations of bloggers posting trade secrets and personal information; others featured classic libel and defamation claims.
In Bell vs. Shah, Joel Bell, who is a professional sports agent, sued the operators of a web site that wrote about college and professional basketball. Prerak Shah was a one-time Connecticut resident who set up and registered the web site before moving to Florida.
Another of the defendants, Jonathan Givony, admitted that he posted a blog entry that accused Bell of paying a college basketball player to leave school and hire Bell as his agent, a violation of college athletics rules. Bell disputed the allegation. As part of the lawsuit’s dismissal, Givony was ordered to post an apology to Bell on his web site for seven years.
According to the MLRC, the first case against a blogger that went to trial and resulted in a liability verdict occurred in Georgia in January 2006. In Banks vs. Milum, a Georgia attorney sued a blogger and political activist for posting accusations that the attorney had paid off judges to free drug dealers. The Georgia jury ultimately awarded the lawyer $50,000 in damages