Anonymous Minnesota Blogger Sued for Libel

The Minneapolis Star Tribune reports on the story of Michael Brodkorb, a formerly anonymous blogger at Minnesota Democrats Exposed who has been forced to reveal his identity as part of a lawsuit against his site.

Facing suit, anonymous blogger lifts his mask

A feisty anonymous Minnesota political blogger has unmasked himself in the face of a lawsuit that claims his blog defamed a local public relations firm. The case against Michael Brodkorb and his website, www.minnesotademocratsexposed.com, could break new legal ground in the Wild West frontier of blogging. Lawyers who filed the suit say that Web logs and other new media should be held to the same standards of accountability as traditional media and journalism. Brodbkorb, a former operative for the Minnesota Republican Party, pledges to protect his source and to keep his website going.

The suit alleges that Brodkorb, citing an unnamed source, defamed the St. Paul-based public relations firm New School Communications when he posted a claim that New School had become publicly critical of the congressional campaign of Coleen Rowley only after Rowley rejected a contract with the firm. Despite being told that New School does not perform political campaign work, Brodkorb, the suit says, continues to make the claim, even though his source “may, in fact, be a fabrication.”

[…]

“This is not an attempt to temper free speech,” said Steve Silton, a partner in Mansfield, Tanick & Cohen, in a statement. “[Brodkorb’s] refusal to retract this story that is damaging to the reputation and business of New School Communications and Blois Olson is what forced us to pursue legal action.”

[…]

Brodkorb, a former research director for the Minnesota Republican Party, had been widely suspected of being the author of the often-acerbic website, which describes itself as a blog “dedicated to the truthful discussion on the activities, statements and tactics of Minnesota Democrats.” In the past it has done such things as purchase domain names of DFL candidates so that viewers who log on to an address expecting to see a candidate’s website are instead directed to the MDE site.

In a posting called “I AM M.D.E.,” Brodkorb, who said his blog work had no connection to the Republican Party, acknowledged he is the author of the blog. He said he wanted to remain anonymous in the past to keep the focus on the subject matter rather than himself. “It is a testament to my hard work and the work of hundreds of people who have e-mailed me information on Minnesota Democrats that in the end, a lawsuit filed by a prominent Democrat consultant forced my identity to be revealed,” he wrote. In an interview, Brodkorb said he stands by the accuracy of the posting and pledges not to reveal the identity of his source.

[…]

The suit has the potential for breaking new ground on legal issues associated with blogging. While some states’ courts have ruled on issues such as anonymous blogging, the territory remains largely uncharted, particularly in the federal courts. While Brodkorb voluntarily revealed himself, some legal experts suggest that federal law would have made it very difficult to unmask him. Additionally, in a Delaware case last year, the state’s Supreme Court ruled that people aggrieved by a blog had the opportunity for redress simply by posting on the offending blog. Political debate, such as that engaged in by Minnesota Democrats Exposed, also is usually afforded the highest form of First Amendment protection by courts, said Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics and law at the University of Minnesota.

One result from the Delaware case could be that bloggers may benefit from their own gunslinger reputations, Kirtley said. “A lot of stuff that appears on blogs, whether it’s meant to be or not, is usually not taken by readers as being statements of fact,” she said. “Bloggers, by their very nature, are not expected to adhere to the same standards of accuracy that those in the mainstream media would be.”

While I was vaguely aware of Brodkorb’s site, I haven’t visited before today given my rather peripheral interest in Minnesota politics.

My position on these things, though, is that bloggers should follow the same rules as other journalists and certainly those of other citizens. No one has the right to defame others’ reputations. Those who feel aggrieved have a right to bring suit for libel and/or slander. Bloggers are no exception to either side of this equation; after all, we can be defamed as well as doing the defaming.

It has been a standard of American law going back to the colonial days that truth is an absolute defense in these cases. Further, since NYT vs. Sullivan, public figures have had a lower level of protection than ordinary citizens but even they have a right to damages from false, malicious statements. Whether those threshholds have been crossed by Brodkorb is a matter for the courts to decide; I have virtually no knowledge of the particulars of the case, so have no opinion on that.

The only broad issue that would seem in any dispute at all is whether a commentator has the right to protect his anonymity. I would certainly think so but haven’t studied the issue from a legal standpoint. The fact that Brodkorb outed himself on the blog, though, would seem to obviate that issue in this case.

via e-mail tip

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Nario says:

    He should used an H anonymous proxy , if not , he can tracked , with a proxy and firewall , or the best method , with a LAN behind a wingate , lawyers cant do anything. this is the best method to remain anonymous , chinese blogger make it.

  2. David Pinero says:

    The same standards for journalists? I slightly disagree; these standards should be universal across all mediums of speech and expression. Journalists didn’t invent truthful integrity and they don’t lay exclusive claim to any special standard. It’s easy to avoid these things as both a blogger or a professional journalist. If you don’t have concrete information, you’re speculating or asserting an opinion and should flatly say so. Nobody’s going to get hauled into court for discussing their personal suspicions. This guy presented something as fact and based it on an anonymous tip, and just like many journalists before him who have done the same, he’s going to have to dance the dance now and count on luck to not bleed this through the nose.

  3. James Joyner says:

    David: No, he’s merely got to prove he got a seemingly reliable tip (and thus that the falsehood wasn’t malicious) OR that the facts were more-or-less true.

  4. In large part I agree with you, lying is wrong and the internet shouldn’t be a place for one to spread malicious mistruths about others.

    However, I see it somewhat different. Perhaps it’s because most of my posts are opinions and expect people to view my posts as opinions and not as facts. I don’t pretend to be a journalist and don’t expect others to hold me as a standard of journalism.

    The internet has become a bastion of lies and is common and well known enough that people ought to know that they should not believe everything that they have read on the internet.

    Whenever I talk about a story or use facts, I try to link to reputable sources because I feel that my blog does not warrant something to be true. Despite making every effort to be honest, I do not wish that people assume that what I said is to be true.

    That being said, in this fellows case, I would have to argue that his comments are very subjective. A representative of the company did approach the Rowley campaign. The Rowley campaign did turn them down. If New School publicly spoke out against Rowley, his comments become completely subjective, aren’t they?

  5. James Joyner says:

    LC: As I say, I don’t know the facts of the case–I’m just setting forth general principles.

    In my own case, I provide factual information from various sources and then add my own opinion/analysis. But bloggers, like anyone else, can be held accountable if they spread unfounded rumors.