My brother was in town this weekend, and we had lunch with him and his fiance' on Sunday.
Over burgers, he told us about a haircut he got this past week.
His barber was originally from a teeny, tiny, two-stoplight town in Northwest Georgia -- a place that my brother's best friend currently lives.
Marveling that he actually now knew two someones from such a small, random place, my brother asked him how he ended up so far away from home, in a much larger, different part of Georgia.
Then the barber's story, quickly, turned sad.
He told my brother he'd been involved in a murder trial, and in the process of the investigation, where he was quickly ruled out as a suspect, he'd been libeled by other towns-members on several online forums.
My brother, of course, was intrigued.
And he was gripped even more so by the man's story when he watched the news the next day.
He realized that the guy was now famous. Because within 24 hours of my brother's haircut, the guy had actually won his case. CNN was broadcasting all about it nationally.
The barber had been awarded more than $400,000 because someone had libeled him on an online message board -- a case that set a huge precedent, and, honestly, is a first of its kind.
Being a former journalist and someone who studied media law in undergraduate and graduate school, this intrigued me even more than the funny coincidence my brother experienced.
This, in fact, is huge. Especially in my eyes.
Because libel, up until now, is something that so many people who use the Internet as a venue for free speech have not been held accountable for.
Libel -- the act of spreading malicious, untruthful, un-proven things through a publication (whether it be newspapers, advertisements, TV news, Facebook, or a blog) -- is illegal.
It has been for years. Lying about someone and hurting them with such lies by spreading them through some sort of published source -- which the Supreme Court has deemed almost any written word that can be read by three or more people -- is against the law.
But until now, no one was successfully prosecuted and held accountable for libeling someone on the Internet.
Ladies. Gentlemen. This changes everything.
Especially for bloggers.
You see, very often, in blogs, I read, "I write this for me. I can write what I want."
Heck, I've written those very words myself.
But the fact remains that we bloggers write a publication. We write something that can be, and is, read by three or more people. And thus, we -- all of us -- can be tried for libel, should we choose to publish something untrue and purposefully hurtful about another person or group of people.
As a normal extremist about free speech, even I think this is a fair and reliable precedent set by the courts.
The Internet, just like a print or broadcast publication, can, and has, caused harm to innocent people's livelihoods and reputations.
Blogs, message boards, Facebook, Twitter -- all of them are great social networking tools. And, thus, they are inherently powerful. Which means, in turn, they can also be inherently harmful if used incorrectly.
So, what do I mean by all this? Do I think we should all hunker down and stop speaking our minds freely on our blogs?
No, not at all.
But I have read many a post here and there where a blogger has spouted off about something or other, without using fact or truth, and could have caused harm to those in question should that information fall into the wrong (number) of hands.
We're human, and sometimes, we write from the heart. But sometimes, our hearts aren't always being 100-percent factual and honest.
So, instead, I caution all of us to take heed. To realize how much power we have. To know that our words can hurt, and that falsehoods we write -- intentional or otherwise -- can cause harm.
A harm that, under the current legal precedent, is now punishable in court.
Honest to goodness, this will probably not affect 99 percent of us and what we write. Ever. But it is something to keep in mind. Especially because supposed anonymity is not a safeguard, either.
You can be traced. Your blog can be traced.
And, even if you were to keep someone or some group you're writing about anonymous on your blog, if they can be identified through characteristics you've used to describe them, you can still be held liable for libeling them. (Say that five times fast.)
More importantly, with this new precedent, we have to realize that we are not protected simply because we use the Internet as our forum. Or because we hold fast to the fact that these are "our blogs."
Like anyone who chooses to publish information, we are culpable under the law, and thus, we are responsible for every word we put out into the world.
To read more the story behind the Internet libel case, go here.
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