NJ Court Says Determines Whether Woman Is A Journalist or Not



The online world is interesting for all of us when it comes to defining who we are. While it’s easy to call yourself a blogger what does that actually mean from a legal standpoint? How is a blogger truly defined when it comes to the legal side of the coin?

A case in New Jersey has brought attention to the rights and protections provided to someone but whether it is about a blogger is something that seems to be up for debate. MediaPost’s report is titled “Jersey Court Rules Blogger Not Protected By Shield Law, Must Divulge Source”. A pretty astounding headline but after reading the report I am not convinced this ruling is about bloggers at all.

An appellate court in New Jersey has ruled that a woman who slammed the software company Too Much Media on a message board isn’t a “journalist” for purposes of the state’s shield law. The controversial ruling means that the post’s author, life coach Shellee Hale of Washington state, can be ordered to divulge her sources for her online remarks about Too Much Media, which is suing Hale for defamation.

New Jersey’s reporter shield law broadly allows journalists to protect the identity of their confidential sources. But the appellate court ruled that not all writers are entitled to claim the benefits of that law “lest anyone with a webpage or who posts materials on the Internet would qualify.”

Now, this whole case is around a message board “post” on a site called Oprano which calls itself the “Wall Street Journal for the online adult entertainment industry”. Oh yea, the plot thickens, doesn’t it? The credibility of all involved is starting to really come to light. Nevertheless, how any court defines a journalist can be important to any online “reporter” or “blogger” because if brought to the courts legal precedence will often help determine which way a case will go.

So the NJ court has basically decided that this message board rant that eventually created a charge of defamation (that’s rich considering the industry, huh?) suit is not protected under the state’s Shield Law. These laws are designed to allow reporters etc to protect sources. The ruling was upheld in an appellate court as well.

The bottom line is this

A trial judge rejected Hale’s argument and an appellate court upheld that ruling this week. The appellate court said that Hale’s posts to the message board were more akin to a letter to the editor than a work of journalism.

“Although any attempt at defining ‘news’ would ultimately prove illusory, some delimiting standards must pertain lest anyone with a webpage or who posts materials on the Internet would qualify,” the court stated.

The judges then went on to outline specific reasons why Hale didn’t qualify as a journalist: “Defendant has produced no credentials or proof of affiliation with any recognized news entity, nor has she demonstrated adherence to any standard of professional responsibility regulating institutional journalism, such as editing, fact-checking or disclosure of conflicts of interest.”

Too Much Media’s lawyer, Joel Kreizman, says that the court correctly decided that Hale wasn’t acting as a journalist when she made the posts. “A journalist would issue a report,” he says. “These posts were on a message board as opposed to any kind of blog.”

Well, now the blogging world may want to be concerned if there is a need for credentials and standards to have some protection under the law. Those aren’t exactly commonplace in the world of blogging. If they are please update me.

Hale’s lawyers, of course, don’t think this ended the way it should

But Hale’s lawyer, Jeffrey Pollock, criticized the decision. He says that New Jersey doesn’t require that journalists have credentials or work for established news outlets to qualify for the shield law. Instead, he says, the only criteria is whether people gathered information for the purpose of publication.

“If she doesn’t qualify, who the hell does?” he asks. “How do you decide who’s in and who’s out?”

Interesting question really. As a blogger, how covered or how exposed you are in any legal case will be more a subjective matter than objective depending plenty of variables. Where you live, where a case is filed and more. As a result, what do you think are the protections afforded someone who has a blog rather than just posts to a forum? Should there be journalistic “rights” for bloggers? If so, how far should they go?

Any thoughts?