State Farm Is There (for Your Blog)

The Journal looks at what’s becoming an increasing issue: Bloggers getting sued for what they write.

And it’s not just a three-anecdotes-and-a-story piece, the paper’s got actual numbers:

Bloggers are increasingly getting sued or threatened with legal action for everything from defamation to invasion of privacy to copyright infringement. In 2007 — the most recent data available — 106 civil lawsuits against bloggers and others in social networks and online forums were tallied by the Citizen Media Law Project at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, up from just 12 in 2003. There have been about $17.4 million in trial awards against bloggers to date, according to the Media Law Resource Center in New York, a nonprofit clearinghouse that tracks free-speech cases.

A caveat, of course, is that there are many more things written online that deserve a lawsuit but never get one. $17.4 million is actually pretty low considering all the purely libelous stuff out there in the cesspool.

Still—and the paper says it in so many words—I’d have liked it to have explicitly pointed out the most chilling issue: Big corporations (and even politicians) spuriously suing bloggers to shut them up, knowing they’ll probably fold since most don’t have the resources to defend themselves.

Like for instance, a company called The Mortgage Specialists sued the Mortgage Implode-O-Meter blog for publishing an internal document while reporting on some nasty settlements the firm had to make for its fraudulent activities.

How many of these threats do we not even hear about because bloggers don’t have institutional support like reporters and columnists to protect themselves from lawyers?

But the Journal does a nice job of exploring how bloggers can protect themselves. Who knew that your gold-plated homeowners’ policy would pay for your defense against a porn site’s suit?

Ms. Hale, the Bellevue blogger, is fortunate in one respect: Her personal umbrella-insurance policy from Allstate Corp. is helping pay for her legal defense, she says. Umbrella policies provide additional liability protection, often including defamation, libel and slander, depending on the insurer, the policy language and state laws.

Or that you can specifically buy blogging insurance?

Some insurers, including State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. and Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co., offer protection in many states for the risk of being sued for something you wrote or posted online as part of a special personal-injury endorsement to a homeowner’s policy. Such add-ons cost about $30 a year. Coverage generally excludes blogs operated for business purposes, as well as intentional acts.

Nice to see a big paper write about this issue.

UPDATE: Felix Salmon points out that the lead anecdote is all wrong in the Journal story. It calls the woman, Shellee Hale, a blogger, when she didn’t write the words in question on her blog at all. She wrote it on a message board.

That’s a big problem for this story. Couldn’t the Journal find a blogger getting sued for, you know, blogging?

Now, I looked Ms. Hale up and she does indeed have a blog. So she is a blogger. But she’s not being sued for blogging. That’s not a quibble. That’s a real distinction.

Also interesting is the comment that got Hale in trouble. I searched for it and found it here. She posted under the pseudonym “Sexyteaser” and noted that she’s working on a “Pornotube” knockoff (UPDATE: Hale says the latter was put there by the forum administrator, not her. See comment below).

Somehow that didn’t make it into the Journal, which should be some comfort to all of you who feared Murdoch would turn the Journal into the New York Post.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.