Reporting from Washington —
The Internet has allowed tens of millions of Americans to be published writers. But it also has led to a surge in lawsuits from those who say they were hurt, defamed or threatened by what they read, according to groups that track media lawsuits.
"It was probably inevitable, but we have seen a steady growth in litigation over content on the Internet," said Sandra Baron, executive director of the Media Law Resource Center in New York.
Although bloggers may have a free-speech right to say what they want online, courts have found that they are not protected from being sued for their comments, even if they are posted anonymously.
Some postings have even led to criminal charges.
Hal Turner, a right-wing blogger from New Jersey, faces up to 10 years in prison for posting a comment that three Chicago judges "deserve to be killed" for having rejected a 2nd Amendment challenge to the city's handgun ban in 2009. Turner, who also ran his own Web-based radio show, thought it "was political trash talk," his lawyer said. But this month a jury in Brooklyn, N.Y., convicted him of threatening the lives of the judges on the U.S. 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.
In western Pennsylvania, a judge recently ruled a community website must identify the Internet address of individuals who posted comments calling a township official a "jerk" who put money from the taxpayers in "his pocket." The official also owned a used car dealership, and one commenter called his cars "junk." The official sued for defamation, saying the comments were false and damaged his reputation.
In April, a North Carolina county official won a similar ruling after some anonymous bloggers on a local website called him a slumlord.
"Most people have no idea of the liability they face when they publish something online," said Eric Goldman, who teaches Internet law at Santa Clara University. "A whole new generation can publish now, but they don't understand the legal dangers they could face. People are shocked to learn they can be sued for posting something that says, 'My dentist stinks.' "
Under federal law, websites generally are not liable for comments posted by outsiders. They can, however, be forced to reveal the poster's identity if the post includes false information presented as fact.
Calling someone a "jerk" and a "buffoon" may be safe from a lawsuit because it states an opinion. Saying he wrongly "pocketed" public money could lead to a defamation claim because it asserts something as a fact.
"A lot of people don't know how easy it is to track them down" once a lawsuit is filed, said Sara J. Rose, an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer in Pittsburgh.
The Supreme Court has said that the 1st Amendment's protection for the freedom of speech includes the right to publish "anonymous" pamphlets. But recently, judges have been saying that online speakers do not always have a right to remain anonymous.
Last month, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Nevada judge's order requiring the disclosure of the identity of three people accused of conducting an "Internet smear campaign via anonymous postings" against Quixtar, the successor to the well-known Amway Corp.
"The right to speak, whether anonymously or otherwise, is not unlimited," wrote Judge Margaret McKeown.
Quixtar had sued, contending the postings were damaging to its business. The judge who first ordered the disclosure said the Internet had "great potential for irresponsible, malicious and harmful communication." Moreover, the "speed and power of Internet technology makes it difficult for the truth to 'catch up to the lie,' " he wrote.
Media law experts say lawsuits over Internet postings are hard to track because many of them arise from local disputes. They rarely result in large verdicts or lengthy appeals to high courts.
Goldman, the Santa Clara professor, describes these cases as the "thin-skinned plaintiff versus the griper." They begin with someone who goes online to complain, perhaps about a restaurant, a contractor, a store, a former boss or a public official. Sometimes, one person's complaint prompts others to vent with even sharper, harsher complaints.
"There's a false sense of safety on the Internet," said Kimberley Isbell, a lawyer for the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University. "If you think you can be anonymous, you may not exercise the same judgment" before posting a comment, she said.
Not surprisingly, the target of the online complaints may think he or she has no choice but to take legal action if the comments are false and malicious.
"These can be life-changing lawsuits. They can go on for years and cost enormous amounts in legal fees," Goldman said.
He is particularly concerned about teenagers and what they post online. "Teenagers do what you might expect. They say things they shouldn't say. They do stupid things," he said. "We don't have a legal standard for defamation that excuses kids."
Media law experts repeat the advice that bloggers and e-mailers need to think twice before sending a message.
"The first thing people need to realize, they can be held accountable for what they say online," Baron said. "Before you speak ill of anyone online, you should think hard before pressing the 'send' button."