...if the standards of law are to apply to Internet journalism, then so should the standards of journalism, requiring responsibility and accuracy of all who practice it. First Amendment Umbrella Shields Online Journalists

In a resounding First Amendment victory for Internet media, a New York state court ruled on December 10, 2001, that online journalists have the same heightened protections against charges of libel as their print and broadcast media counterparts. The court ruled that when an online journalist is reporting on issues of public importance, charges of libel would only apply when the reporter acted with actual malice (the very standards set for print and broadcast media by the U.S. Supreme Court in New York Times v. Sullivan).

The case, Bank of Mexico v. Menendez Rodriguez (better known as the dispute between Banamex and Narconews.com), was before the New York State Supreme Court for New York County. The case involved the First Amendment and attempts by the giant bank to chill the free speech rights of two investigative journalists, Mario Menendez with the Mexican publication Por Esto! and Al Giordano with Narconews.com who published the reports in the Narco News Bulletin, a website critical of the government methodology of the war on drugs.

Banamex, upset with investigative reports claiming that its bank president was involved in the drug trade, sued the journalists for defamation. The case ended up in New York only after it was thrown out of court in Mexico — twice.

By dismissing the case before it reached trial, the New York state court made it abundantly clear that the online reporters were protected under the same heightened standard as other reporters, and Banamex’s claims of libel clearly did not meet that standard. Supreme Court Justice Paula Omansky opined, "This court finds that Narconews is a media defendant and is entitled to heightened protection under the First Amendment."

The court also stressed that the journalists were reporting on matters of public importance, and therefore should be protected. "The nature of the articles printed on the website and Mr. Giordano’s statements at Columbia University constitute matters of public concern because the information disseminated relates to the drug trade and its effect on people living in this hemisphere," the court opined.

As laws governing numerous aspects of the Internet are hammered out in the courts, this decision affirms respect for the general and existing rule of law interpreted to extend to legitimate online media the same free speech protections as other media. At the end of the day, Internet media provide an information delivery mechanism, the same as television, newspapers, magazines or books -- and should be treated as such.

The growth of this nascent medium for reporting should be encouraged by allowing online journalists to find a safe harbor under the same freedom of speech protections that exist for other news media. Without these protections, voices that would not otherwise have the opportunity to speak may very well be chilled by the looming threat of a lawsuit at every turn. Equally important, however, if the standards of law are to apply to Internet journalism, then so should the standards of journalism, requiring responsibility and accuracy of all who practice it. That is not a legal obligation; it is a moral and ethical one.

December 14, 2001
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