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Originally published Saturday, August 22, 2009 at 11:46 PM

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Ryan Blethen / Times editorial columnist

Understand consequences of free speech

There is nothing wrong with pushing the limits of the First Amendment, but there is a line where free speech can go too far and real damage is done. Bloggers are writing past this line and finding themselves in trouble.

Times editorial page editor

Words matter. Words are malleable and can be used to illuminate or obscure. Words can hurt. Because of the heaviness of words, newspaper journalists take seriously the power we wield through our publications.

Journalists spend an inordinate amount of time contemplating and discussing what to write and how to write it. This contemplating and discussing encompasses everything from topics, to word choice, to what is appropriate to be spun off the press.

Journalists have the right to write pointed critiques or damaging stories. This is never done lightly and must be backed up with fact. What we do can alter somebody's life for better or worse. Almost every professional journalist is careful not to abuse this right of free speech.

There is nothing wrong with pushing the limits of the First Amendment, but there is a line where free speech can go too far and real damage is done. Bloggers are writing past this line and finding themselves in trouble.

The common refrain from bloggers is that they have a right to say what they want, especially if it is their opinion. Whatever that opinion is, it needs to be grounded in fact. If it is not then the writer runs the risk of being sued for libel, which is a false statement that damages a person's reputation.

Lucy Dalglish, executive director of The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, said she is receiving more and more calls from bloggers.

"They don't seem to understand that if you are going to spout off, that spouting off has consequences," she said.

The average blogger doesn't have the same understanding as trained journalists do of the difference between fact and opinion and the use of "red flag words."

"As more citizens are out there blogging away many of them don't have a grasp of what the law is," Dalglish said.

In the past couple of weeks there have been some cases of bloggers getting into trouble. One involved an anonymous blogger in New York who allegedly wrote false and defamatory comments about Liskula Cohen, a model. Cohen sued, and a judge ordered Google — who hosted the blogger — to release the blogger's identity to Cohen and her attorney. Turns out the blogger was a woman who turned up in some of the same social settings as Cohen.

No case is more bizarre than one originating out of New Jersey, which involves a blogger, Chicago judges and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Hal Turner is an Internet radio host and blogger who wrote that three federal appellate judges in Chicago should be killed because of their ruling against the National Rifle Association's attempt to overturn a couple of handgun bans. Turner followed up by posting pictures of the judges and a map of the courthouse. He also pointed out where the truck-bomb barriers were around the courthouse. Writing that people should be killed isn't libel but it is dangerous to incite such violence.

Not surprisingly, Turner got a visit from the FBI and is now in jail awaiting trial. Wired reported Wednesday that Turner claims he worked for the FBI between 2002 and 2007.

Oh, my. These kind of cases worry me as they do Dalglish because of the precedent they could set and Congressional backlash they could create.

"It's not to say that people shouldn't be able to go out there and write on the Internet to their heart's content, but we have libel laws for a reason. Sometimes people get hurt," she said.

If bloggers don't learn to check themselves, and use a modicum of restraint, then not only will people get hurt but free speech could be irreparably damaged.

Ryan Blethen's column appears Sunday on the editorial pages of The Times. His e-mail address is: rblethen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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