The benefits of the Internet are too numerous to count. The web has made information easily searchable, revolutionized the news industry, and boosted access to entertainment. But one of the unintended consequences of the online communities created by the Internet is the nasty remarks hastily employed by public and anonymous bloggers and commenters alike. It turns out that under the law, those comments can be considered more than just a nuisance; they can be punishable by law.
The LA Times reports today on the uptick in lawsuits against bloggers accused of violating defamation rules online. “Most people have no idea of the liability they face when they publish something online,” said Eric Goldman, a professor at Santa Clara University and prolific legal blogger. “A whole new generation can publish now, but they don’t understand the legal dangers they could face. People are shocked to learn they can be sued for posting something that says, ‘my dentist stinks.'”
So far, bloggers have been held accountable for making threats and stating false information as fact, not expressing opinions. A blogger can say a local business owner is an idiot, for example, but not that he engages in unethical business practices. In one case, conservative New Jersey blogger Hal Turner was convicted by a Brooklyn jury for saying three Chicago judges “deserve to be killed” for a ruling on handgun laws he disagreed with. Turner faces ten years in prison.
Federal law states that websites are not liable for the comments posted by readers. But they can be required to disclose the account information of anonymous bloggers who have made threatening or defamatory statements. Even though the Supreme Court has upheld the right to publish anonymous pamphlets, judges have recently said that online commenters do not share the right to remain anonymous.
I don’t understand the logic for why anonymous comments online would be more harmful than anonymous pamphlets, but whatever the courts rule, bloggers should be careful about what they say online. It’s easy to make rude and vicious statements when you don’t have to face your opponent in person. But freedom of speech issues aside, using such inflammatory language neither helps win an argument nor helps foster a constructive online community.
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