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Screenshot detail above from a video posted on Hal Turner's YouTube channel. Turner "faces up to 10 years in prison" after blogging threats against federal judges led to his recent conviction in New Jersey. (Credit: YouTube, Hal Turner)

Blogging can hone writing skills and create an audience of people with similar interests. It can also land you in jail or the courtroom–  even in the United States, the land of protected speech.

David G. Savage reported for the Los Angeles Times that while U.S. free speech protections applies to bloggers, that doesn’t mean they can’t get sued for online postings and go to jail.

There’s been “a steady growth in litigation over content on the Internet,” Savage reported Media Law Resource Center’s executive director Sandra Baron, said.

Savage cited three recent and specific cases in courts:

  • Hal Turner in New Jersey: Turner, a conservative blogger was convicted Aug 13 in his third trial after blogging threats against federal judges.  The radio “shock jock” wrote, for example: “Let me be the first to say this plainly: These judges must die. Their blood will replenish the tree of liberty.” See more about the latest news on this case here on the Asbury Park Press’s website.
  • A Pennyslvania Court ruling to out the anonymous writers behind postings calling a local official “a jerk’ who put money from the taxpayers in ‘his pocket.'”  That official also owned a car dealership, which sold “junk,” according to the anonymous writer.
  • A North Carolina Court ruling to ID a poster who called an official a “slumlord.”

Opinions, like naming someone a “jerk,” can often be protected speech, but bloggers can be sued for statements presented or regarded as fact, he wrote. “Most people have no idea of the liability they face when they publish something online,”Savage reported.

Eric Goldman, who teaches Internet law at Santa Clara University said. “A whole new generation can publish now, but they don’t understand the legal dangers they could face. People are shocked to learn they can be sued for posting something that says, ‘My dentist stinks.’ ”

Goldman is quoted as saying the lawsuits “can be life-changing” because they can last for so long and cost so much money.  And, teenagers’ online postings are an area of concern for him.  “Teenagers do what you might expect. They say things they shouldn’t say. They do stupid things,” he said. “We don’t have a legal standard for defamation that excuses kids.”

According to Savage, there’s no easy way to measure how many lawsuits there have been because of online writings “because many of them arise from local disputes” and “they rarely result in large verdicts or lengthy appeals to high courts.”

IN INDIA TOO

J Alex Halderman wrote Aug 22 on group technology blog Freedom to Tinker that one of his co-bloggers, Hari Prasad, had been arrested after Halderman, Prasad and another writer, Rop Gonggrijp, had blogged critiquing India’s electronic voting machines.

Their blog detailed “serious security flaws in India’s electronic voting machines. Indian election authorities have repeatedly claimed that the machines are ‘tamperproof,’ but we demonstrated important vulnerabilities by studying a machine provided by an anonymous source.”

Halderman wrote that Prasad “was arrested by Indian authorities demanding to know the identity of that source.”

“At 5:30 Saturday morning, about ten police officers arrived at Hari’s home in Hyderabad. They questioned him about where he got the machine we studied, and at around 8 a.m. they placed him under arrest and proceeded to drive him to Mumbai, a 14 hour journey.”

He wasn’t charged specifically, but Halderman wrote that it seemed to be related to finding out who their anonymous source was.

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“The arresting officers told Hari that they were under “pressure [from] the top,” and that he would be left alone if he would reveal the source’s identity.” Halderman wrote.

India’s voting is done by paperless electronic voting machines, Halderman recounts.  While he reports that India’s Election Commission claims the voting marchines are “perfect” and “fully tamper-proof,” there have been reports questioning that perfection .

“Despite widespread reports of election irregularities and suspicions of electronic fraud, the Election Commission has never permitted security researchers to complete an independent evaluation nor allowed the public to learn crucial technical details of the machines’ inner workings.”

Halderman wrote that in February, Hari was given the opportunity – legally both he and Halderman believe – to inspect one of the machines by an anonymous source.  During inspection, they found out that the voting machines aren’t perfect at all and that it is definitely possible to “tamper with the machines to change election results.”

They wrote a research paper, Security Analysis of India’s Electronic Voting Machines, which was peer-reviewed and in October is slated to be presented at the ACM Computer and Communications Security Conference.  (See Ed Felton’s analysis of the paper here.)

As a result of their research, Halderman wrote, commentators and political parties have “expressed serious concerns” about the machines. StinkyJournalism has written to Halderman for more information and will update with any response.

CUBA

Luis Felipe Rojas wrote about his Aug 16 arrest on Crossing the Barbed Wire, an English translation of the Cuban blog Cruzar Las Alambradas.   He says he was interrogated twice and held for 13 hours after posting a report by a dissident group.

The week prior Rojas published an a human rights report by the Eastern Democratic Alliance (“a network of political dissident organizations,” according to Amnesty International).  He said he “saw (the arrest) coming” and “even had a premonition dream about it” because he’s been arrested before.

On Aug 23, the police came back to Rojas’ house, that time more specifically informing Rojas of the potential legal effects of his blogging, he says.

“I had to live through the same police story, only with the difference that now they told me about reports denouncing human rights violations, about my blog, and about the independent journalism which I do.  They reminded me that to write, like I do, many others spent much time in prison since 2003.  They told me about the Gag Law which mentions something about 25 years behind bars.”

iMediaEthics has written to Rojas and will update with any response.

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