gavel court judgeLast week, a federal appeals court ruled that bloggers have the same First Amendment protections as journalists and the “institutional press” when they publish content about matters of public concern. Furthermore, the court ruled that when it comes to defamation claims, plaintiffs must prove negligence, and juries must find that defendants acted with intentional malice in order to award damages.

In the case of Obsidian Finance Group v. Cox, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (a nonprofit organization that provides free legal assistance to journalists) spokesperson, Gregg Leslie, told the Associated Press the ruling affirms that the standards set in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. in 1974 apply to more than just journalists. Leslie said, “It’s not a special right to the news media, so its a good thing for bloggers and citizen journalists and others.”

Cindy Cierhart of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press noted some key points in the court’s ruling:

The court noted that “a First Amendment distinction between the institutional press and other speakers is unworkable.” With the prevalence of online commentary, the “line between the media and others who wish to comment on political and social issues becomes far more blurred.”

This ruling is an important win for bloggers, particularly Authoritative Content bloggers whose role in the media landscape is so important. Today, a “blogger” could be a company, a global news organization, an “institutional journalist”, an educator, a lawmaker, or any other member of the public. Levels of authority, access to press credentials, and big paychecks vary but that doesn’t mean First Amendment protections should vary.

The world of journalism has changed. More journalists are blogging as digital news publications grow, and as traditional print news publications close their doors or reduce reporter staffing, bloggers fill an important gap in the media system. In fact, consumer demand for more digital content from Authoritative Content publishers is growing faster than ever.

I think Ken Paulson (president of the First Amendment Center, dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors) summed up the ruling well in his USA Today article when he wrote:

“As abusive and derisive as some bloggers may be, they’re direct descendants of the first generation of Americans who used pamphlets and politically driven newspapers to attack their political rivals. It was then that the nation’s Founders ratified the First Amendment, paving the way for robust discussion of public issues, regardless of medium. That’s something worth celebrating.”

One could argue that some of today’s national and global newspapers, network news programs, and cable news programs are just as derisive as the bloggers Paulson mentions in his USA Today article. The First Amendment applies to them, so it’s about time it applies to bloggers, too.

Image: Jason Morrison