Bloggers = Media for First Amendment Libel Law Purposes

So holds today’s Obsidian Finance Group v. Cox (9th Cir. Jan. 17, 2014) (in which I represented the defendant). To be precise, the Ninth Circuit concludes that all who speak to the public, whether or not they are members of the institutional press, are equally protected by the First Amendment. To quote the court,

The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist, formally affiliated with traditional news entities, engaged in conflict-of-interest disclosure, went beyond just assembling others’ writings, or tried to get both sides of a story. As the Supreme Court has accurately warned, a First Amendment distinction between the institutional press and other speakers is unworkable: “With the advent of the Internet and the decline of print and broadcast media … the line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes far more blurred.” Citizens United, 558 U.S. at 352. In defamation cases, the public-figure status of a plaintiff and the public importance of the statement at issue — not the identity of the speaker — provide the First Amendment touchstones.

I think that’s right, not just as a matter of First Amendment principle but also as a matter of history and precedent (as I documented at length in Freedom for the Press as an Industry, or for the Press as a Technology? From the Framing to Today, 160 U. Pa. L. Rev. 459 (2012)). The specific legal issue that the Ninth Circuit was confronting in this passage, by the way, is whether all who speak to the public are equally protected by the Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. rules, which are that

  1. libel plaintiffs suing over statements on matters of public concern must prove that the defendant was negligent about the falsity of the statement, and
  2. libel plaintiffs suing over statements on matters of public concern and seeking presumed or punitive damages (as opposed to identifiable compensatory damages) must prove that the defendant knew that the statement was false or recklessly disregarded the possibility that it was false.

But the court’s reasoning reaches the First Amendment more broadly, and correctly so (again, see the Freedom for the Press as an Industry, or for the Press as a Technology? article, which sets out the historical evidence). Note, though, that the court’s reasoning is limited to First Amendment protections; it doesn’t discuss state or federal statutes that provide extra protection to the “media” or to other subsets of speakers.