Blogger jailed in Anna Nicole Smith defamation suit

By AFP

June 18, 2010 Updated May 31, 2009 at 10:11 PM EST

A real estate agent in Houston who blogged about Anna Nicole Smith was jailed for contempt last week in a defamation case brought by the late Playboy model's mother.

Legal experts said bloggers are increasingly the targets of such litigation, which are testing the bounds of free speech.

Lyndal Harrington, who is accused of helping to spread falsehoods that Virgie Arthur married her stepbrother and abused Smith as a child, spent four nights in jail after she failed to comply with a court order to turn over her computer.

The 53-year-old grandmother claimed her computer was stolen during a burglary less than a week after it was subpoenaed.

A police officer testified that he believed the theft was staged and judge Tony Lindsay ordered Harrington to produce the computer by July 2 or she will again face incarceration.

Harrington says she is shocked that she is being sued for comments posted on someone else's blog to pass the time.

"I just voiced my opinion," said Lyndal Harrington of her posts about Smith and Arthur on the website "Rose Speaks."

Like many bloggers, Harrington doesn't consider herself a publisher and did not realize she could be held liable for her posts.

"I got into this because my business had fallen apart in this economy and it was something to do," she told AFP. "I developed a lot of friendships with women who are retired or ill at home."

Three other bloggers are named in the suit along with Smith's former companion, Howard K. Stern, and Larry Birkhead, the father of her daughter, Dannielynn.

Arthur alleges that the defendants conspired to defame her so she wouldn't get custody of Dannielynn, who could inherit up to 88 million dollars.

"Lyndall Harrington is a liar who faked a burglary," said Neil McCabe who represents Arthur.

"She's part of a conspiracy to defame my client and she's done her own defaming of my client."

Lawsuits against bloggers in the United States have been doubling every year since 2004 with 15 million dollars in judgments so far against them, according to Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association.

"A lot of bloggers think of themselves as individuals or maybe writers but in the courts, they are considered a publisher," Cox said.

His organization has created an on-line course with Harvard Law School, City of New York School of Journalism and News University at the Poynter Institute at Northwestern University to educate bloggers about their legal rights and responsibilities.

"A lot of these cases could have been avoided if things had been worded just a little differently or if they had double sourced their information," Cox said.

"Most of the time, these people are not trained journalists."

The spike in suits is due in part to the burgeoning number of bloggers.

About 175,000 new blogs are created every day according to Technorati, a blog search engine.

But it also has to do with people's growing obsession with controlling their on-line reputations and new technologies that allow them to do it.

"With Google alerts and rss feeds, it's a lot easier to monitor what's being said about you," said Sam Bayard, assistant director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard University.

Moreover, the technology exists to find anonymous bloggers.

"People can find you," said Cox at the Media Blogger Association, which this year began offering its members legal expenses insurance for an annual fee of 540 dollars for 100,000 dollars of coverage.

The majority of cases against bloggers are for defamation but they are also frequently sued for copyright infringement and invasion of privacy.

"There's this Wild West mentality where people think they can do anything on the Web and not be held liable," said Bayard.

While state laws vary on what constitutes defamation and who qualifies as a journalist and thus who can protect sources, Bayard said, judges have consistently applied the same standards to blogs as they would any other medium of expression.

"Defamation is defamation no matter whether it is written on paper or on a blog," he said.




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