Silence of the lambs? You have rights as a blogger!

One of the most common fears avid bloggers have is "getting sued" if they provide a negative opinion or commentary about something or someone. Step on too many toes, and you might find yourself in some hot water. And there are plenty of companies and people who help by regularly threatening to sue bloggers, in an effort to keep them quiet.

But what about if you're running a site that caters to dissatisfied customers? Or if you've had a bad experience with a company and you want to blog about it to help warn others? Or if you simply have a blog as part of a business venture, and you wish to write about random topics that might include something negative about a person or company? Should you be forced to keep quiet about these things?

A website dedicated to helping bloggers, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is trying to get the word out to bloggers about their legal rights. They've been running a bloggers' rights campaign to help bloggers learn about their rights, and to help protect the rights of free speech and anonymity on the internet. Many of the articles on the site were written a couple of years ago, but don't let that scare you. Not much has changed in terms of the rights of bloggers over the last couple of years.

I've consulted the website often as I have a tendency to express some unpopular opinions on my blogs, and I want to make sure I'm doing things by the book. One really helpful page is their Legal Guide for Bloggers. There are some key things that bloggers need to know, in order to protect themselves and their financial future. If your blog is a source of income for you, it's important to protect that. And you also want to protect your personal assets because the threat of lawsuits is real.

Of course, I have to give a disclaimer that all of the below is my opinion as simply a blogger, and not a lawyer. I'm not a lawyer, and I'm not pretending to give legal advice. I'm just sharing with you what I've learned throughout my journey as a blogger.

The first key is to remember that the truth is an absolute defense to many of the claims that may be brought against you. So tell the truth, and you'll save yourself a lot of trouble. When you can, post documents or proof of your claims so that people can clearly see you're telling the truth.

What about rumors that you want to write about? Bloggers should print those very carefully. Of course, it's important to identify them as things that you can't verify and may be rumors. You have to be careful though, because spreading malicious rumors about people (especially if they're likely to be untrue), can get you into big trouble.

We have freedom of speech in America, which means you have a right to state your opinion. Where some bloggers get tripped up is in confusing readers between what is opinion and what is fact. Make sure your opinions are clearly identified as such so that readers won't be confused.

Don't forget though, that you could follow all the rules and still be sued. Companies and individuals are known to file legal actions against those whom they wish to silence. They know that they might not win if they ever get in front of a judge, but they're hoping the fear and the legal costs will get you to give in and quit blogging about them. That doesn't seem fair, but it's the way things work for those who have the money to pay for attorneys. Especially if they hope you don't have the money or the desire to fight things out in court.

Tracy L. Coenen, CPA, MBA, CFE performs fraud examinations and financial investigations for her company Sequence Inc. Forensic Accounting, and is the author of Essentials of Corporate Fraud.
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