In the trial of Washington State blogger Shellee Hale, Superior Court Judge Louis Locascio of Monmouth County has ruled that Hale is not protected under New Jersey’s journalist shield law because she is a blogger rather than a mainstream media journalist.
Acknowledging that he was wading into largely uncharted legal waters, said Shellee Hale’s message board postings last year about a Freehold-based computer software company were nothing more than the rants of "private person with unexplained motives for her postings" and cannot be given the same protections as information compiled though the process of news gathering.
"To extend the newsperson’s privilege to such posters would mean anyone with an email address, with no connection to any legitimate news publication, would post anything on the internet and hide behind the shield law’s protections," Locascio wrote.
"The rate at which the internet has grown and evolved into a universal source of news and information has left the legal community in its dust," Locascio wrote in his 19-page opinion. "The time has come for the law to begin establishing its place in this vast abyss." –MaryAnn Spoto, The Star-Ledger
The ruling also means that Hale can be sued for slander for the allegedly defamatory statements she posted on an Internet message board about a software company based in Freehold. Hale had asked to be protected from the lawsuit by the shield law, which states that journalists can’t be forced to reveal their information sources.
Hale, a licensed private investigator with four blogs, was sued last year by Too Much Media LLC, a company that supplies computer software to online porn sites, for claiming in her posts that the company had threatened her life and violated New Jersey consumer identity theft laws; and for refusing to reveal her sources when asked. Hale argued that she was protected under the New Jersey shield law because she was writing an article about a Too Much Media internet security breach. In a hearing last April, she testified that she had never published this article out of fear for her own safety.
Though calling New Jersey’s shield law one of the nation’s broadest, Locascio denied Hale’s motion because she failed to make a prima facie case that she was connected with the news media. The law protects persons "engaged on, engaged in, connected with, or employed by news media for the purpose of gathering, procuring, transmitting, compiling, editing or disseminating news for the general public." –law.com
With the number of blogs and bloggers growing exponentially, it’s important to remember just how open bloggers are open to defamation suits. This case in particular highlights the nature of defamation with respect to Internet materials. Hale was a Washington resident but went to court in New Jersey because defamation occurs anywhere somebody downloads defamatory materials. This means that bloggers can be sued under the laws of any state in the country, even when they post the materials in their home state.