Dec 8 (Reuters) - A federal judge has ruled that a Montana blogger was not acting as a journalist when she lambasted an Oregon attorney in online statements that led to a $2.5 million defamation judgment against her.
The ruling last week by U.S. District Judge Marco Hernandez is seen by observers as potentially having chilling effects on other bloggers.
The case stems from a lawsuit filed on Jan. 14 against Eureka, Montana-based blogger Crystal Cox that accused her of defaming Oregon attorney Kevin Padrick with writings on her website that called him corrupt.
Padrick was working as a trustee in the bankruptcy case of an Oregon-based real estate firm, Summit Accommodators Inc.
After Summit unraveled, executives with the firm were charged with wire fraud and money laundering over an alleged scheme that saw customers lose millions, according to the FBI.
Cox, 41, who represented herself in the defamation trial, said in court papers she began blogging about the Summit bankruptcy in 2009 as an investigative journalist.
She presented arguments seeking legal protections often given to the media on the grounds that, in her view, Padrick and his company, Obsidian Finance Group, were public figures.
Media organizations and others are often protected by the "actual malice" legal standard established in a 1964 U.S. Supreme Court decision, which holds that under the First Amendment, journalists to be liable for defamation must know or have warning signs their inflammatory statements against a public figure are false.
Hernandez disagreed with Cox's arguments.
"Based on the evidence presented at the time of trial, I conclude that plaintiffs are not public figures, defendant is not 'media' and the statements at issue were not made on an issue of public concern," the judge wrote in his ruling. "Thus, there are not First Amendment implications."
Attorneys for Padrick presented as evidence a Jan. 19 email from Cox, sent days after she was sued for defamation by Padrick and Obsidian, in which she offered the firm her services "to protect online reputations and promote businesses" for $2,500 a month. Cox denied she was trying to extort money.
Hernandez found Cox failed to present evidence that she had any media credentials or affiliation with a "recognized news entity," or that she had checked her facts or tried to contact the other side to "get both sides of the story."
David Ardia, co-director of the University of North Carolina center for media law and policy, said the judge exhibited a "cramped and myopic" view of journalism in his ruling against Cox.
"There is no accepted definition of journalism or who is a journalist," he said. "Judges have wisely shied away from wading into that debate unless they absolutely have to."
John Barrows, executive director of the Montana Newspaper Association, told Reuters he found the ruling "troubling" but that his group would review it further.
Most newspapers and media companies do not subject reader comments posted online to the same journalistic standards they apply to their own reporters.
Hernandez issued a verbal ruling in court denying Cox's request for certain legal protections customarily offered to journalists before a jury found on Nov. 29 she had defamed Obsidian and Padrick. Jurors found she should pay $1 million to the company and $1.5 million to Padrick.
The next day, the judge gave his written opinion underpinning his ruling on Cox's arguments.
Cox said she planned to appeal and that attorneys had offered to defend her.
"I am a journalist, I have over 400 blogs and I have been doing this for years," Cox said. "You may say I'm not mainstream, but what could be more mainstream than the Internet, really?"
Padrick said in a telephone interview that because of Cox's writings, a Google search of his name revealed pages of false information.
"She ruined my life, she's decimated my advisory business and I have to live with this every day," he said. (Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis: Editing by Peter Bohan and Peter Cooney)