Florida Court of Appeals rules that a Blogger is entitled to the same protection as the traditional media

By Stephen Pate – It may seem out-of-date but there are people still fighting over who’s a journalist and who’s not.

In the Florida District Court of Appeal 5th District, the judges clearly said bloggers are the same as journalists, at least some of the time.

A Florida blogger wrote a story about animal cruelty when a business person pulled a pistol and shot two husky dogs. The story was widely reported including a YouTube video of the shooting.

Chris Comins shot two pet huskies on video while bystanders stood dangerously close by–and now does not anyone talking about it on the Internet.

Chris Comins shot two pet huskies on video while bystanders stood dangerously close by–and now does not anyone talking about it on the Internet. (Photo – Public Intellectual)

Christopher Comins, the pistol packing dog hater, decided to sue the weakest person in the public denouncement of his animal cruelty, a student blogger named Matthew Frederick VanVoorhis. The blog post Barbarian Hillbilly Dog-Assassin (w/Friends in High Places)

Florida 5th District Appeals Court

Florida 5th District Court of Appeal (Photo Google Street View)

To protect and nurture a free press, most jurisdictions have rules that limit lawsuits for defamation when the story is published in the media.  In Florida, a person seeking damages for defamation must give the alleged guilty party 5 days notice.

“Before any civil action is brought for publication or broadcast, in a newspaper, periodical, or other medium, of a libel or slander, the plaintiff shall, at least 5 days before instituting such action, serve notice in writing on the defendant, specifying the article or broadcast and the statements therein which he or she alleges to be false and defamatory.

Part of VanVoorhis’ defense was that Comins neglected to file legal notice 5 days in advance of his lawsuit.

The three judges of the Florida Fifth District Court of Appeal upheld the lower court ruling dismissing the defamation suit on the grounds that Comins failed to file proper notice for civil action against “publication or broadcast, in a newspaper, periodical, or other medium.”

The presuit notice does not apply to individuals. “Every Florida court that has considered the question has concluded that the presuit notice requirement applies only to ‘media defendants,’ not to private individuals.” (Zelinka c Americare Healthsan, Inc. 763 So. 2nd 1173, 1175 (Fla 4th DCA 2000))”

The question was: how would the court look upon VanVoorhis. Is he citizen blogger or a legal member of the media?

Not only did the court dismiss the defamation suit but Judge Griffin in the unanimous decision wrote a  clear defence of bloggers as equal to journalists.

Griffin wrote “…it is hard to dispute that the advent of the internet as a medium and the emergence of the blog as a means of free dissemination of news and public comment have been transformative. By some accounts, there are in the range of 300 million blogs worldwide. The variety and quality of these are such that the word “blog” itself is an evolving term and concept. The impact of blogs has been so great that even terms traditionally well defined and understood in journalism are changing as journalists increasingly employ the tools and techniques of bloggers – and vice versa. In employing the word “blog,” we consider a site operated by a single individual or a small group that has primarily an informational purpose, most commonly in an area of special interest, knowledge or expertise of the blogger, and which usually provides for public impact or feedback. In that sense, it appears clear that many blogs and bloggers will fall within the broad reach of “media,” and, if accused of defamatory statements, will qualify as a “media defendant” for purposes of Florida’s defamation law as discussed above.”  comins-v-vanvoorhis-c

Judge Griffin does not say that all bloggers are journalists but he does conclude that a “citizen blogger reporting on particular topics managed by persons of exceptional expertise to whom people look for immediate news” are part of the media.

In practical terms, any journalist who does not have blogging skills in 2014 is job threatened.