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Proceed at your own risk

The much-heralded openness and immediacy of electronic publishing, particularly in blogging, has turned out to carry many of the same hazards as print publication.

Take some recent examples: An editorial columnist at the Indianapolis Star is out of a job because he posted comments on the newspaper's blog that the editor and members of the community found racially offensive.

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A reporter at the Dover Post in Delaware was fired last year after his editor saw comments he had posted on his blog, especially a Martin Luther King Jr. Day reference to James Earl Ray and remarks about people the paper was or was not covering. The reporter's defense was that he was just joking.

The Galveston, Texas, public school district has demanded that a parent remove what it calls libelous material from her personal Web site. The district has threatened to sue for defamation, though an article in the Galveston Daily Times about the situation quotes a legal expert who thinks that such a lawsuit has little chance of success.

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Putting things on the Internet enables all kinds of people to see them, and it is publication, just as if it were in a pamphlet, newspaper or magazine article or book. Just as it can be unfortunate when your Facebook account of that night you got stinking drunk and — never mind — turns out to have been checked out by a potential employer, those remarks on your personal blog may come back to haunt you. And if you conduct a blog associated with a publication, like this one, you have the potential for bringing down trouble on the company's head as well.

I'm not a lawyer, and this post does not constitute legal advice; but there are some commonsense cautions that anyone who blogs, privately or for an employer, should keep in mind.

Nothing is private anymore. Sneering at your boss online or revealing details of your company's operation can land you in hot water.

People are litigious. You can be sued. And even if the suit has no merit and goes nowhere, the expense of defending against a lawsuit can be heavy. If the suit proceeds and you lose, the damages pile up on top of the legal fees. Think of the guy in Georgia who posted angry comments about his former lawyer. The lawyer brought and won a libel suit, and earlier this year the Georgia Court of Appeals upheld an award of $50,000 in damages.

When you write about identifiable individuals, you'd better be sure that you are factually accurate. And while the law gives a wide latitude to published expressions of opinion, there are limits.

And yes, ordinary prudence should not be overridden.

For further information: An article in The News Media and the Law describes the hazard bloggers may face from libel lawsuits. Blogger Steve Tobak offers some basic information about libel and the things bloggers should be cautious about. And the Electronic Frontier Foundation has posted a comprehensive "Legal Guide for Bloggers."

Finally, shouldn't you have someone you trust look over your stuff before you post it? Maybe edit it?

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