New Jersey Shield Law Does Not Protect Bloggers From Defamation Claims

In the case of Too Much Media v. Shellee Hale (pdf file), the New Jersey Supreme Court rejected the claim that the state’s shield law for journalists protected a blogger who posted defamatory comments on an online message board. This will it easier for an Internet lawyer to protect his client’s reputation from libel in that state.

The court found…

“New Jersey’s Shield Law provides broad protection to the news media and is not limited to traditional news outlets like newspapers and magazines.  But to ensure that the privilege does not apply to every self-appointed newsperson, the Legislature requires that other means of disseminating news be “similar” to traditional news sources to qualify for the law’s coverage.  We do not find that online message boards are similar to the types of news entities listed in the statute, and do not believe that the Legislature intended to provide an absolute privilege in defamation cases to people who post comments on message boards.”

This has caused uproar in the social media for obvious reasons. To many in the online community, providing favorable treatment to offline media arbitrarily discriminates by those who just don’t understand the Internet.

Yet it’s important to note that the court’s decision was rendered by interpreting state law as it exists. The court made it clear that New Jersey’s legislature could broaden the statute at any time by amending the law to include bloggers and others.

“The Legislature is free to expand the law’s coverage as a matter of policy.  In an era of ever-changing technology, with new and rapidly evolving ways of communicating, the Legislature may choose to reconsider who is a newsperson and add new criteria to the Shield Law.  We are not foreclosing that discussion today; we are simply interpreting an existing and far-reaching statute.”

For now, it seems clear that those seeking shield law protection in the State of New Jersey are going to need to jump through some extra hoops to establish themselves as journalists protected by the statute if they’re going to be posting content online in blogs and message boards.