Monday, April 5, 2010

Do citizen journalists need legal protection from frivolous lawsuits?

Does the First Amendment offer citizen journalists legal protection to say what they believe? Yes and no.

Companies regularly use lawsuits - which have become know Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) - to silence and punish critics, usually individuals who have posted a negative comment on the Web. Legal experts say the plaintiffs lose more SLAPPs than they win because the First Amendment is on the defendants' side, but that is not the point. The goal of the lawsuits is to get the critics to back down - or face financially rehabilitating legal action.

A bill now working its way through Congress - The Citizen Participation Act (H.R. 4364) - was introduced to protect either “petition activity and speech or conduct in connection with an issue of public interest with a set of procedural mechanisms", according to the Public Participation Project". "An 'issue of public interest' includes any information or opinion related to health or safety; environmental, economic or community well-being; the government; a public figure; or a good, product or service in the marketplace."

Twenty-seven states have signed similar provisions into law, but the levels of protection vary. According to the Public Participation Project, the proposed act "allows a defendant to bring a special motion to dismiss the lawsuit at an early stage in the proceedings. The defendant must show that the lawsuit against him arose from his protected speech or petitioning activity. The plaintiff must then demonstrate that her claim is both legally sufficient and supported by a sufficient prima facie showing of facts to sustain a favorable judgment."

One expert - speaking on National Public Radio's "On the Media" show - also suggests anyone who blogs regularly to add defamation coverage to their homeowner or renter's insurance coverage; he estimated such coverage could cost as little as $3 a year.

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