A state judge in New Jersey has ruled that a blogger cannot claim the protection of the New Jersey reporter shield law in a defamation suit brought by a software company.
Ok, let me back up and explain what's going on here. Shellee Hale runs a blog, operates a couple websites that offer her services as a "life coach", and has a private investigator's license. She was investigating criminal behavior in the porn industry when she discovered that many porn sites used a piece of software to keep track of money they earn through referrals from other sites.
Hale got involved in the discussion on a website in which she accused the company that made the software, Too Much Media, of commiting fraud and warned that the heads of the company would threaten the life of anyone who reported on the details of the vulnerability.
The company was not pleased, and sued Hale for defamation. They were preparing to demand her sources when she claimed the protection of the shield law.
Superior Court Judge Louis Locascio, acknowledging that the issue was one of first impression in the state, ruled that Hale hadn't made a prima facie case that she qualified for the shield's protection as a member of the new media.
It's a close case, but it seems like Locascio may have made the right call. After all, if Hale had published a full article with attributed sources and a full explanation of the allegations, the case might have gone a different way. Instead, she posted a few isolated statements on a blog's comment boards that accused the company of some pretty foul behavior with nothing to back it up, really. The comments weren't even on her own blog.
Plus, it seems like the judge just didn't think he could trust Hale's assertion that she was reporting on the issue for the benefit of the general public. The judge rejected her affidavit that claimed she had written articles for a newspaper and trade journals because she failed to offer any detailed proof, and he also pointed to false statement she had given as part of a prior jurisdictional motion as a reason to discount the affidavit.
All in all, the judgment seems to be fairly narrow, and hopefully won't affect the news gathering abilities of bloggers in any devastating way. Any blogger who conducts investigations, writes reports that provide information for the general public, and doesn't fudge the truth with a judge should be able to claim the protection of the shield when someone tries to pry into their sources.
Bloggers shouldn't have to prove that they were part of some newspaper or magazine to benefit from the shield, though. Just because a blogger doesn't work for the New York Times doesn't mean that they aren't capable of some truly groundbreaking investigative journalism. The danger with this decision is that judges in future cases might see it as a blanket rule that bloggers do not qualify for the shield, regardless of the nature of their work.
N.J. judge rules blogger not protected by newspaper shield laws (NJ.com)