I started The Gossips of Rivertown eleven and a half years ago. The very first post was published on January 20, 2010. Despite the name, which I borrowed from a 1848 novel by Alice B. Neal, a woman writer born and raised in Hudson, Gossips is a serious journalistic endeavor. My principal goal in starting Gossips and in keeping it going for more than a decade has always been to share information about Hudson--to make people aware of what's happening in our city and what is being planned for its future and to help people appreciate its rich and storied past.
As a collateral outcome, Gossips has become a forum for readers to express opinions and share information in comments. In the past year, this has become problematic. On several occasions recently, I have been threatened with legal action for publishing readers' comments that report negative information or express negative opinions regarding the actions of people who are elected officials or public figures. For this reason, I am inspired to review for readers the law regarding libel and defamation.
The principle that truth is an absolute defense against charges of libel is well established. It was established in the laws of this country in 1735, well before the American Revolution. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution (1789) protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press. In more recent decades, there have been some significant court decisions regarding libel and the press. In 1964, in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the court determined that public officials could win a suit for libel only if they could demonstrate actual malice on the part of reporters or publishers. Actual malice was defined as "knowledge that the information was false" or publishing information "with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." The decision was later extended to cover public figures.
There is also Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996, which applies to Gossips' role as a forum for readers. Section 230 states: "No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider." I am advised that this effectively immunizes Gossips from liability for statements made by commenters on the blog.
For those who wish to threaten Gossips with libel suits, be advised that Gossips has legal representation. Communications regarding such allegations should directed to John K. Friedman, Esq.
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