I was sued over a blog post and you can learn from it

Chris Moody sued over a blog postWhere to start?

For those of you who follow this blog or keep up with me, you may find 232 days without a post a bit odd. Some may have chalked it up to my adorable son (now 14 months old).

But, that wasn’t it.

I was sued over a blog post.

Yep. The same guy who has co-founded an MBA course on social media was named in a lawsuit over it. To be fair, I was never served, but it was a painful experience.

I didn’t really talk about it. I didn’t really know what to do. I didn’t really want to pay to fight it. I was a bit lost.

Luckily, I have some extremely smart friends and an attorney in the family who provided some guidance.

Why was I sued?

Disclaimer: I’m choosing to be vague here. Local news websites and broadcasts covered an event that took place a few miles from my old residence. The story discussed how the application of a new technology was used to help keep the public safe. I thought that was cool.

Boom. I shared the news article on my blog with an intro reading “Interesting use of technology” or something to that effect.

Years pass.

We were trying to sell our house and had just been notified that the offer we accepted was not going to work out due to an insanely low appraisal. We were crushed. We had packed, planned, celebrated and done all the things you do when you’re taking the next step as a family. Now we had to start over again. An hour after that happened, my phone rang. It was a local attorney representing a large governmental organization. He was calling to update me on the lawsuit I was named in.

I literally had a WTF moment.

You must have the wrong person. I haven’t done anything wrong.

Then he proceeds to tell me about how a person named in a news story was unhappy with how they were represented and named all the news stations, websites, forums, users, etc. where the article was mentioned in the suit.

I laugh.

This is ridiculous. Nobody would take this seriously. Sue everyone who shares an article? Are they suing everyone who watched the news? Or everyone who read the website? What about comments, tweets, shares that didn’t stick to a blog?

The attorney was great. He couldn’t give me counsel since he represented another party, but was very calm, respectful and also a bit surprised.

I’m not one to deal with many legal matters. I contested a bogus speeding ticket when I was in my teens (and won). I was deposed when a startup imploded, but had nothing to do with that case (I just told the truth in a conference room for 9 hours). Sued? Really? I mean, come on man. Really?

I hang up the phone and cry.

The house fell through. I’m named in a multi-million dollar suit (I could give a flatscreen TV away). I’m screwed. I had started a new job. I was raising a new family. I am a Dad now. What do I do about all of this? It may sound dramatic, but seeing your name on a document asking for millions of dollars is new to me.

Normally, I would probably be a little more defiant. I believe in standing up for what you believe in. I believe in fighting to make things better, even if you endure the pain to get there. I believe in the greater good. I grew up a team player. I would have probably challenged this head-on if I wasn’t already in the dumps. But, I felt defeated.

I buried my blog away. I grew jaded. I marketed the heck out of all things cloud with my job, but didn’t share much of anything online.

This happened in April 2011… see the trend?

The next few months were stressful. Every time the doorbell rang, I thought I was getting served (that is what happened with the deposition after all). I did what I normally do – get a little analytical and research the hell out of my situation. That is what makes me a decent marketer after all.

Months pass. Eventually, things return to normal.

What to learn from this

You need to increase the buffer you have before putting things online. My motto was always to keep it offline if you wouldn’t want your mom, spouse or boss to see it. But, that isn’t quite enough. Be wary of anything negative or that could potentially damage anyone’s reputation – even if it seems like a no brainer.

After all, it is becoming commonplace to be sued or threatened if you leave negative reviews behind. A Google search now yields over 19 million results for sued over a negative review. Phil Buckley was just recently threatened over a negative review. I received a letter from Cash for Gold once about not referring to it as a scam. It is happening a lot now.

If you like erring on the side of free speech, just be prepared to spend some money to defend a post if someone takes offense to it.

I am not a lawyer, this is not legal advice – just findings. These were relevant in my situation.

On the Internet, first source carries the burden.

Well leave it to the Fourth District, Court of Appeal to decide the issue. It determined that Internet websites are subject to the single publication rule. In plain English, (and grossly simplified) it means that you can only sue for damages based on the first publication of a defamatory statement. You can’t, for example, sue multiple times based on a single defamatory statement. This is important because the statute of limitations is triggered at the first publication of a defamatory statement. So the Fourth District effectively held that in regard to alleged defamatory statements made on Internet websites (like blogs or Twitter), the statute of limitations begins to run at the time the statement is first published.

In NC, the statute of limitations for libel, slander and defamation is one year.

You are protected from any statements from a third-party reposted on your blog under the Immunity for Online Publishers and Communication Decency act.

So, what now?

Obviously, I’m writing again. It took me a while, but here I am.

I’m also in talks with several lawyers about a potential resource for bloggers and/or insurance to protect others in similar situations and to have resources available without spending a ton of money. There are groups for the press, but I’m not aware of any for individual bloggers. Chime in if I missed something. It is tricky as I don’t think bloggers are entitled to the press benefits.

I don’t plan to deal with anything else like this in the future. It would be nice to take the Oatmeal approach to threats / lawsuits, but I don’t have the pull or the audience for that.

Be careful out there friends. It felt good to write this and I think I’m over it now. :)

Update from an anonymous journalist

I didn’t see anyone in the comments bring up this organization that you may want to be aware of:

Electronic Frontier Foundation

Also, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press also has done work protecting bloggers as citizen journalists.

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