A judge presiding over the well-publicized Oregon defamation lawsuit involving Crystal Cox recently ruled against the self-styled, self-published investigative blogger. Cox was ordered to pay $2.5 million in damages and the decision has stirred online First Amendment crusaders.
The Crystal Cox Defamation Lawsuit Background
A self-described investigative blogger and whistle blower, Crystal Cox is a real estate agent by day and Internet vigilante by night. Among her cadre of websites was obsidianfinancialsucks.com, an outlet Ms. Cox used to accuse Kevin Padrick — one of Obsidian’s founding executives — of fraud, misappropriation of funds, lie telling, and a litany of other unscrupulous actions. Cox even insinuated Padrick may have hired an assassin to silence her.
As a result of her online accusations, Mr. Padrick decided to sue for defamation. He maintained his company lost considerable business thanks to Ms. Cox’s allegedly misleading statements. Padrick explained that the Internet was awash with Cox’s disparaging claims — a digital reality which damaged him financially.
Defamation Pro Se Trial
In court, representing herself “pro se,” Cox argued her blog posts were journalistic, of “pubic concern,” and that the Oregon retraction laws should apply to her situation (retraction laws allow journalists to correct or retract defamatory statements in lieu of compensatory damages.). Cox also characterized herself as a “whistle blower” exposing the unscrupulous practices in the finance world.
The Definition of Journalist When It Comes To Online Defamation Lawsuits
Judge, Marco A. Hernandez, however, rejected the assertion that Cox was a journalist.
By applying Oregon law, Hernandez ruled Cox could not be treated as a journalist since:
- She did not have a formal education in journalism
- She did not hold proof of affiliation with a recognized news entity
- She arguably didn’t adhere to journalistic standards such as editing and fact checking
- She did not keep notes of conversations and interviews conducted
- She could not produce evidence that she had a mutual understanding or an agreement between the defendant and his or her sources
- She did not contact the grieved party, before publishing, to get both sides of the story
Offering SEO Services Sunk Cox
In addition to the legal Oregon defamation elements noted above, perhaps the most damning piece of evidence against Cox was an email, presented as evidence by the defense, wherein Cox offered Padrick online reputation management services for $2,500 a month.
In the eyes of the court, the email helped in disqualifying Cox for journalistic immunity. After all, the offending email framed Cox as someone who was actively looking to profit off her statements, and thanks to the presence of the email, the defense could argue that Cox was essentially holding Padrick’s business reputation hostage.
The Right Defamation Decision…But At What Cost
Based on the above defamation definition elements — and the fact that Cox couldn’t prove wrongdoing on the part of Mr. Padrick — it’s no surprise that Obsidian and it’s executive emerged victorious.
That being said, many are concerned about the unintended First Amendment ramifications this decision may have on Internet bloggers in the future. Many wonder how well bloggers, who work for online magazines or news organizations, fit into the qualifying factors listed by Hernandez. For instance, not every blogger working for a news organization has a a journalism degree.
The defamation lawsuit of Crystal Cox is sure to play a role in future blogger defamation lawsuits; it’s established legal precedence that is certain to be tested and challenged in the coming years.