Blogging and the First Amendment

A catfight between a model and a blogger turns into a serious legal debate

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A Vogue cover girl has gotten into a spat with a catty, mean-spirited blogger. All of the sudden, journalists are spouting legal precedent and quoting state supreme court rulings. What is this all about? According to the London Times, model Liskula Cohen "sought the identity of the blogger who maligned her on the Skanks in NYC blog so that she could sue him or her for defamation." She got it. A Manhattan Supreme Court judge ordered Google, the hosting company through, to hand over the relevant information. This decision sets a precedent that could affect the entire blogging world, and bloggers haven't held back in commenting on the matter. Some are shocked, some are jubilant, and some are just plain amused:

  • This Should Be Fun  Calling the case "the biggest waste of time in the history of the American  judicial system," Gawker's The Cajun Boy was nevertheless delighted by the prospect of Cohen's planned defamation suit: "Yes!" He exclaimed, "A defamation suit in this case would be amazing, seeing as each side would be forced to provide evidence to show whether or not Liskula Cohen is or is not a "skank."
  • Serious Legal Questions at Stake  "Is this just Gawker-worthy gossip?" Asked Richard Koman on ZDNet Government. "Actually, no. The  decision highlights a number of recent decisions on a critical Internet issue--when may a private litigant force third parties (ISPs or search engines) to strip anonymity from their users?" Koman quoted the decision in McIntyre v. Ohio Elections Commission, which stated that anonymity is an "aspect of the freedom of speech protected by the First Amendment." According to Koman and a Santa Clara University Law School friend of his, the law is still fairly murky regarding tests for stripping anonymity. An appeal from the blogger in the Cohen decision might "increase the consensus, or perhaps it would be just another wrinkle in the landscape."
  • A Victory for the Tasteful  "Next time some loser decides to commit an online hatchet job," wrote PC World's David Coursey, "the image of Liskula Cohen may appear to them and maybe they'll think better before clicking the 'post' button." Coursey called Cohen a "hero," writing that, "this case reminds us that First Amendment or not, malicious speech is not protected speech."
  • Cohen May or May Not Be A Skank, But Coursey's an Idiot  "Last time we checked in on David Coursey," wrote Techdirt's Mike Masnick in a scathing response to the Coursey column, "he was claiming that Pirate Bay made money selling subscriptions to users and didn't seem to understand the difference between 'theft' and 'infringement' or the difference between a search engine and a user. So," he continued, "I guess we shouldn't really be at all surprised that he's about the only person around who seems to think it was a good thing that a court forced an anonymous blogger to be revealed." Suggesting Coursey was "unfamiliar" with the legal history of protecting anonymity under the First Amendment, Masnick pointed to a potentially crucial distinction: "yes, you can be unmasked for truly defamatory speech, but calling someone a skank hardly qualifies."

Or does it? That appears to be the question of the day.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.