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Anal-Retentive Hyperlinking Helps Gizmodo Sidestep Defamation Suit

The threat of getting sued for libel or defamation has always hung over the heads of media professionals, now particularly so in the blogging era. The truth is always the clearest, simplest defense when faced with libel claims. But there are other, less direct avenues one can pursue as a defense, if need be.

A lawsuit recently dismissed against Gizmodo shows off one of the more commonly overlooked ways to bolster a defense against defamation. Let’s just say there’s often a reason bloggers like to include all those hyperlinks…

Gizmodo, Gawker Media’s tech-centric blog, was sued over a 2011 article entitled, “Smoke & Mirrors: The Greatest Scam in Tech.” According to a write-up by professor Eric Goldman, the piece purported to describe “Peep Telephony, a service that claimed to offer free cellular phone service through the power of mesh networking.” As you might guess from the title, it wasn’t exactly a fluff piece. (The company is also known as Peep Wireless.)

Scott Redmond, who owns Peep, was quite unhappy with the coverage, so the site ran a follow-up piece that included his objections to the original. That wasn’t enough to appease his frustration, so he sued.

A California court tossed the lawsuit last week, partly for a few commonplace reasons. For one, the court said the issues raised by the article were a matters of public interest. Also, the court said Redmond was upset about statements of opinion, not facts.

But most awesomely interestingly, Judge Sandra Margulies specifically pointed in her opinion to Gizmodo’s extensive use of hyperlinking as helpful to their defense. From the ruling:

The sources upon which the authors rely for their conclusions are specified, and the article incorporates active links to many of the original sources—mainly Web sites and promotional material created and maintained by Redmond and his ventures… Having ready access to the same facts as the authors, readers were put in a position to draw their own conclusions about Redmond and his ventures and technologies… Statements are generally considered to be nonactionable opinion when the facts supporting the opinion are disclosed.

What is the takeaway from this? In journalism school, they used to teach you: “Attribute! Attribute! Attribute!” I guess nowadays, it should be: “Hyperlink! Hyperlink! Hyperlink!”

Professor Goldman, who also runs the Technology & Marketing Law Blog, provides commentary that is, as usual, direct and insightful:

This is true, of course, but a point often lost when defamation plaintiffs are breathing fire. A properly cited article, filled with hyperlinks to original source materials, should be extra-resistant to defamation claims — even if written with typical blogger snark. Readers can easily inspect the source materials themselves and make their own judgments about the article’s veracity. Thus, either the citations provide proper factual support for the article’s opinion, or the links should eliminate any problems with the author’s knowledge (where that matters to the prima facie defamation claim, which would have been the situation here). Either way, the defamation claim should fail, as it did here.

Good to know. Good to know. In other news, did you know that people who use Internet Explorer are stupid, Santa Claus is the reason kids are fat, and the Los Angeles Police Department is getting jet packs? God, I love hyperlinking.

Heavy dose of hyperlinks gets defamation lawsuit against Gizmodo tossed [Ars Technica]
Scott Redmond v. Gawker Media [Court Of Appeal for the State of California, First Appellate District]

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