A recent article in ABC News paints a fairly grim picture about the current state of blogging. According to the article, as well as the Media Law Resource Center, there have been 159 civil and criminal court actions taken against bloggers since 2004 with countless others threatened into silence before any kind of action was filed.
Though the number of actions taken are still very small compared to the number of bloggers writing (Technorati was tracking over 70 million blogs at its last report), the threat of legal action is enough to scare many bloggers into changing the way they write, removing content or otherwise altering their site.
The problem is that, even if the image of bloggers being sued is an exaggerated one, the image of bloggers being threatened with such suits is much less so. For every lawsuit that reaches trial, there are dozens that are settled and for every one that is settled there are likely hundreds that are threatened, but never filed.
This has helped to create a climate of fear, one that bloggers need to be prepared for.
Arrests and Criminal Charges
As the ABC article points out, the danger you are in for arrest is almost directly related to the country you are operating in. If the country posts severe restrictions on access to the press and free expression, then criticizing the government can lead to an arrest.
But while these arrests may happen in Egypt, China and Iran, the countries cited in the article, they are almost unheard of in countries such as the U.S. However, there are still at least a few ways that a blogger the U.S. could find themselves in arrested for what they write. Some examples include the following:
- Threats and Harassment: If you use your blog to frighten or intimidate others, there is a slew of potential criminal charges that could apply depending on the nature of what was said and the reason it was said.
- Child Pornography: Obviously, any publication of what might be deemed child pornography could result in an arrest.
- State Secrets: Equally obvious, giving out information that may jeopardize national security could also be cause for arrest.
- Criminal Copyright Infringement: Though copyright infringement can become a criminal offense, it is unlikely that a blog will reach the required level. Most current criminal copyright infringement cases involving the Web in the U.S. have dealt with bittorrent trackers and other file sharing sites, not blogs, but it still is at least theoretically possible.
In short, while there are ways that you can be arrested for your blog, if you operate your site in good faith and avoid obvious legal issues, criminal charges are unlikely unless you live in a country where they are more common.
Still, it is important to know your rights and the boundaries the law sets before you in order to be certain that you do not run afoul of them. If you think that something you are considering could create a situation that you could be arrested for, it is wise to consult with an attorney before pressing the “publish” button.
Lawsuits and Civil Disputes
But while criminal cases involving bloggers are still very rare in most countries, lawsuits and threats of lawsuits are much more frequent.
The problem is that, while journalists have long studied media law as part of their education and training, most bloggers have not and are both unaware of their rights and the gray areas they have to avoid. Likewise, many people who feel that they were wronged may not understand the rights a blogger has and that they, the allegedly infringed, have no recourse.
This has set the stage for a lengthy series of legal scrapes, the bulk of which never result in a lawsuit being filed, where one or both parties do not fully understand their rights in the situation. These situations are dangerous and often lead to one or both parties unwittingly hampering their legal rights.
Though the ways that a blog could find itself are in legal trouble, the most common seen these days are the following:
- Defamation (libel)
- Trade Secrets
With that in mind, it is important that bloggers, big and small, to understand the law in these areas. Fortuantely, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has assembled an excellent legal guide that covers most of these areas.
Best of all, the guide is in simple, easy-to-read English that explains these matters in Q&A format, making it a fast an informative read.
The simple truth is that there are many legal risks associated with blogging. Bloggers do get sued and many more are threatened with legal action.
But while many of these disputes are unavoidable, for the most part, one can avoid these types of disputes by operating in good faith, having a solid understanding of the law and knowing their rights.
But while there is no manditory course on media law for bloggers, there are many out there, including the EFF, who are willing to help you understand and empower yourself.
But while no one likes to take the time to study law, knowing your rights is an important part of blogging without fear and being the most effective blogger you can.