In an important victory for free speech advocates, the Ninth Circuit has joined other courts in establishing that authors protected by the First Amendment need not be journalists to have such robust protections.
In Obsidian Finance Group, LLC v. Cox, — F.3d —- (2014) (filed Jan. 17th, 2014), the Ninth Circuit overturned a lower court decision that limited certain First Amendment protections to institutional journalists. The Court explained that “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.”
In aligning the Ninth Circuit with other circuits which have addressed the issue, the court reaffirms that negligence is the minimum legal standard for any case involving matters of public interest (and possibly all cases). To receive general damages without suffering specific harm and to receive punitive damages, the plaintiff must establish that the defendant published the statements with actual malice, meaning intentional knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of the truth.
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the Supreme Court established the modern First Amendment framework. Public officials must prove actual malice to prove liability. Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, (1967), then extended this standard to public figures. A decade later, in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 350 (1974), the Supreme Court held that the First Amendment required a negligence standard for private defamation actions. Significantly less than the actual malice standard, it nonetheless established that there could not be liability without fault.
In Obsidian Financial Group, the Ninth Circuit does not suggest the defendant is blameless:
Crystal Cox published blog posts on several websites that she created, accusing Padrick and Obsidian of fraud, corruption, money-laundering, and other illegal activities in connection with the Summit bankruptcy. Cox apparently has a history of making similar allegations and seeking payoffs in exchange for retraction. See David Carr, When Truth Survives Free Speech, N.Y. Times, Dec. 11, 2011, at B1. Padrick and Obsidian sent Cox a cease-and-desist letter, but she continued posting allegations.
The accusations and statements, however, were difficult to view as factual assertions. Where there were assertions of fact, the court explains, the plaintiff must establish the negligence of the statements.
The Ninth Circuit also sidestepped the issue whether the Gertz negligence standard applies to matters of purely private concern. It noted the unresolved question, when it stated that “the Supreme Court has ‘never considered whether the Gertz balance obtains when the defamatory statements involve no issue of public concern.’” (quoting Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Greenmoss Builders, 472 U.S. 749, 757 (1985) (plurality opinion)).
Instead, the Ninth Circuit noted that the blog was made available to the public at large, just as every blog does. Moreover, the court noted that “public allegations that someone is involved in crime generally are speech on a matter of public concern.” So instead of answering whether the negligence standard applies to private matters, the court expanded the realm of public discourse to almost any public accusation.
This strategy has the effect of expanding the negligence standard to almost any claim. It may leave certain personal matters personal, though this is unclear. It could also leave certain formats, such as personal emails, texts, and friends’ lists as matters of purely private concern, but undoubtedly many of allegedly defamatory posts on such platforms will also be matters of public concern.
The distinction between matters of public concern and purely private matters has less and less meaning, and the distinction is likely to continue to erode in the context of defamation, though perhaps remain relevant in some issues involving privacy.
Nonetheless, the case is an important victory for free speech interests. Of course, this does not mean anything can be published with impunity. Negligence is not a terribly difficult test to meet and those plaintiffs who have truly been harmed will still have their day in court. It is difficult to be the subject of online attacks, but the rules of law should apply equally to all speakers, journalists, bloggers, and citizens alike. In the Ninth Circuit, it now does.