If you blog, the worst of your worries shouldn’t be how many times to post, or what to write about, or whether to use WordPress or Typepad.
Your Number One concern—the question bloggers never think to ask—should be: “What if somebody sues me tomorrow for copyright infringement, defamation or invasion of privacy—what does that mean?”
Here’s what it means. It could cost you your house, your car and your future income stream.
Take it from me. Being named in a defamation suit that asks for a quarter million dollars in damages turns your world upside down, then drops the bottom out of your stomach.
That’s what happened last October. A reporter from People magazine had called, asking me to comment on a story they were writing about a lawsuit that had been filed by the former headmistress of Oprah Winfrey’s school for girls in South Africa. The plaintiff named me in the suit, along with Oprah and Huffington Post.
Nomvuyo Mzamane, the former headmistress of the Leadership Academy for Girls, cited comments to the media that Oprah made in October and November of 2007 after a dorm matron at the school was charged with assaulting and abusing students.
Mzamane named the Huffington Post and me for a blog item I wrote in November for this blog and for Huffington saying Mzamane was charged in connection with the scandal. She was not charged. I had erred. And the first I had learned about the lawsuit was when People called asking me to comment.
I responded quickly, and People used the entire statement:
“I’ve learned that in my November 7, 2007, blog post, ‘Oprah Scandal: A Lesson in Crisis Management,” and in a column I wrote for Huffington Post on November 19, 2007, I inadvertently erred by saying that the former head mistress of Oprah Winfrey’s Dream Academy was charged with a crime. I deeply regret that error and apologize to former head mistress Nomvuyo Mzamane.
“Journalists, including those on blogs, make mistakes, and if Ms. Mzamane had contacted me about that directly, I would have corrected it online — with an apology — immediately. I have not, in fact, been contacted by her or served with a lawsuit. I’m a firm believer in full compliance with the law, with the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics and with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, and know that I was in compliance with all three in this case.”
I also wrote a correction for my blog. That weekend, I started contacting business associates who might be able to tell me where I could turn for help defending the suit.
I tracked down an old college friend who had worked as a libel attorney in Philadelphia, where the suit was filed. She gave me two good leads:
—She told me about a segment she had heard the day before on NPR’s “On the Media” show. It was called The Calculated Risk of Blogging. It featured Robert Cox of the Media Bloggers Association discussing all the ways bloggers can get into trouble—from threats and cease and desist letters all the way up to federal lawsuits. The Media Law Resource Center, which tracks these cases, reports that there’s been over $16 million in judgments against bloggers. I went to the group’s website and emailed Cox, asking if he could help.
—My friend also referred me to an excellent libel attorney in Philadelphia, where the suit was filed. It would cost me about $10,000 up front for the attorney’s firm to take the case. The attorney recommended I go back to the Media Bloggers Association for help.
How to join the MBA
You can join the Media Bloggers Association for only $25. Even if you stay out of trouble, the membership fee is well worth the interactive, online crash course in libel and defamation, regardless of the topic of your blog.
The course was created by the well-respected Poynter Institute, and it ends with a multiple-choice quiz that you’ll have to pass before you can join. The course will take about an hour to complete and it’s actually fun.
After I passed the test and joined MBA, Cox referred me to Ronald Coleman, an attorney with Goetz Fitzpatrick LLP, whose office is in New York, for a free telephone consultation. Coleman took the case, worked on it many hours, and kept me apprised every step along the way.
Two months later, under a settlement agreement, the Huffington Post agreed to post an apology, in exchange for the dismissal of the claims by Mzamane. She dismissed the claim against me, too, because I already had posted a correction as soon as I learned I had been sued. Neither I nor Huffington were required to pay any money.
I paid nothing for legal counsel, but would have paid my attorney’s fee if the case had gone to trial.
“Had the case gotten to trial and had you lost, you would have paid the judgment,” Cox said. “So bloggers need to consider that to defend a defamation case, it might cost $50,000 or more, even more if appealed. And the blogger might lose and have to pay the plaintiff.”
The MBA does still offer access to its legal network “but we cannot promise the sort of support you got where Ron put in quite a few hours,” Cox said. It now offers members a discount on liability insurance through a separate insurance company.
What bloggers can learn
If you blog, you might consider yourself a writer first. Or a humanitarian. Or a passionate advocate for a favorite cause or issue.
But first and foremost, you are a content publisher. The second your finger hits the “publish” button, you’re as vulnerable to a lawsuit as a major newspaper. Unlike a newspaper, however, which often has an entire team of attorneys to represent it, the blogger usually ends up alone.
I’m not an attorney and this isn’t legal advice, just a few other things you need to know:
- If you make a mistake, correct the record as soon as possible and apologize.
- Even if you know that what you’ve written is 100 percent accurate, a jury can still find you guilty.
- Anyone can file a lawsuit. Even if you win, it could take months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend, and you could lose your personal possessions like your house and your car.
- Conducting your research online before you blog, and then saving time by cutting and pasting content you’ve found elsewhere into your own blog, website or article—without rewriting it—can invite a lawsuit for copyright infringement. (I hosted a teleseminar several years ago with intellectual property attorney Patricia Eyres on the topic of “Legal Issues You Must Know about Writing Articles for Fee or for Free.”)
- Understand what can get you into trouble and what can’t. Make sure you know what you can say about a public person and what you can’t say about the guy who lives next door.
During my 22 years of training as a newspaper editor and reporter, I learned how to always check facts, strive for accuracy, be fair, and tell both sides of the story. Yet all the training in the world can’t prevent mistakes, or a lawsuit.
If it happened to me, it can happen to you. Know your options and be prepared.