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The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has filed a friend-of-the-court brief asking the U.S. Court of Appeals (9th Cir.) to review how trial courts evaluate who is a member of the news media for purposes of libel law, which in some states leads to a requirement of a higher standard of proof, which benefits journalists.
Blogger Crystal Cox lost a $2.5 million libel verdict after a narrow interpretation of Oregon law determined that she was not a journalist and her work did not involve a matter of public concern. Had she been classified as a journalist, the standard for fault would have been substantially different.
“In addressing the question of who qualifies as a member of the news media, the lower court adopted several restrictive criteria that do not take into account the fast-evolving nature of the journalism profession and that severely limited the class of individuals who can take advantage of the increased First Amendment protections that limit the law of defamation,” the Reporters Committee brief argued. “The determination of whether a particular person qualifies for such protections cannot be based on what a journalist’s job traditionally has been; rather, any test must be closely matched to the constitutionally protected function journalists perform.”
The brief also argued against the court’s focus on the “lack of public debate in the subject matter of the speech. But speech that has yet to stir any public controversy may be no less a matter of public concern than speech that arises after a public dispute develops.”
The Reporters Committee is asking the appeals court to send the case back to the lower court to reassess under a broader standard whether Cox is a media defendant and if her speech is of public concern.
“The question of who is a journalist is being looked at by courts across the nation,” said Reporters Committee Executive Director Bruce D. Brown. “We must work to ensure that judges broadly define journalist to include not only reporters who write for traditional news outlets but also those who work for digital media, who may be on their own disseminating news to the public, and others who may emerge as technology evolves. A fluid definition is crucial to preserving the constitutional rights of free speech and free press.”
The Reporters Committee brief filed in Obsidian Finance Group LLC v. Crystal Cox is online.
About the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press
Founded in 1970, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press offers free legal support to thousands of working journalists and media lawyers each year. It is a leader in the fight against persistent efforts by government officials to impede the release of public information, whether by withholding documents or threatening reporters with jail. In addition to its 24/7 Legal Defense Hotline, the Reporters Committee conducts cutting-edge legal research, publishes handbooks and guides on media law issues, files frequent friend-of-the-court legal briefs and offers challenging fellowships and internships for young lawyers and journalists. For more information, go to www.rcfp.org, or follow us on Twitter @rcfp.
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