Monday, May 05, 2008

Mikey's a journalist?

Patrick Condon of the Associated Press repeats the canard of Doug Tice of the Strib (although Spot can't find the link to the Big Question post at the moment) when he writes that a Minnesota court found that Michael Brodkorb was a journalist:

Brodkorb started Minnesota Democrats Exposed anonymously in 2004, when he was still a paid employee of the state Republican Party. He outed himself in 2006 only after a Democratic public relations consultant sued him for defamation for an item Brodkorb posted. A judge dismissed the lawsuit last year, saying Brodkorb deserved the same legal protections as newspapers and traditional broadcasters against lawsuits by public figures.

Actually, Patrick, he didn't exactly out himself, but never mind that for now.

The implication is that Michael Brodkorb is entitled to some kind of protection as a news source. Condon has it backwards: Brodkorb was sued by a public figure, and because the plaintiff was a public figure, the plaintiff had to show malice to recover for libel. Brodkorb's status really had nothing to do with the outcome.

A careful reading of N.Y. Times v. Sullivan makes it clear that, at its base, it was a free speech case, not a press case. The media are the principal beneficiaries of the decision, but its protections are for everyone: media outlets and ordinary citizens alike, including Michael Brodkorb. But that doesn't put Mikey in a category with "newspapers and traditional broadcasters."

In Times v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court considered the Alabama libel law that permitted a judgment against the Times by a public official to be the equivalent of the Sedition Act of 1798:

That statute made it a crime, punishable by a $5,000 fine and five years in prison,

"if any person shall write, print, utter or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing or writings against the government of the United States, or either house of the Congress . . . or the President . . . with intent to defame . . . or to bring them, or either of them, into contempt or disrepute; or to excite against them, or either or any of them, the hatred of the good people of the United States."

The Sedition Act, along with the Alien Act, were blots on the presidency of John Adams.

A number of people were convicted under the Sedition Act, and certainly not just newspapers. The act provided for the defense of truth, but often the utterances of the defendants were incorrect in some trivial detail, just as was the case in Times v. Sullivan.

The Sedition Act was allowed to expire - it did have a "sunset" provision in it - and President Thomas Jefferson pardoned every person convicted under it. Congress also voted to return any fines paid.

The Court said that "the court of history" had condemned the Sedition Act for its effect on free speech and the airing of comment on the performance of public officials in particular.

The Supreme Court may have saved Michael Brodkorb's bacon, but it didn't make that poisonous scrub a journalist.

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