Bloggers, Ask The Right Question: What If I'm Sued Tomorrow?

This post, by Joan Stewart, originally appeared on her The Publicity Hound’s Blog on 4/28/09.

If you blog, the worst of your worries shouldn’t be how many times to post, or what to write about, or whether to use WordPress or Typepad.

Your Number One concern—the question bloggers never think to ask—should be: “What if somebody sues me tomorrow for copyright infringement, defamation or invasion of privacy—what does that mean?”

Here’s what it means. It could cost you your house, your car and your future income stream.

Take it from me. Being named in a defamation suit that asks for a quarter million dollars in damages turns your world upside down, then drops the bottom out of your stomach.

That’s what happened last October. A reporter from People magazine had called, asking me to comment on a story they were writing about a lawsuit that had been filed by the former headmistress of Oprah Winfrey’s school for girls in South Africa. The plaintiff named me in the suit, along with Oprah and Huffington Post.

Nomvuyo Mzamane, the former headmistress of the Leadership Academy for Girls, cited comments to the media that Oprah made in October and November of 2007 after a dorm matron at the school was charged with assaulting and abusing students.

Mzamane named the Huffington Post and me for a blog item I wrote in November for this blog and for Huffington saying Mzamane was charged in connection with the scandal. She was not charged. I had erred. And the first I had learned about the lawsuit was when People called asking me to comment.

I responded quickly, and People used the entire statement:

“I’ve learned that in my November 7, 2007, blog post, ‘Oprah Scandal: A Lesson in Crisis Management,” and in a column I wrote for Huffington Post on November 19, 2007, I inadvertently erred by saying that the former head mistress of Oprah Winfrey’s Dream Academy was charged with a crime. I deeply regret that error and apologize to former head mistress Nomvuyo Mzamane.

“Journalists, including those on blogs, make mistakes, and if Ms. Mzamane had contacted me about that directly, I would have corrected it online — with an apology — immediately. I have not, in fact, been contacted by her or served with a lawsuit. I’m a firm believer in full compliance with the law, with the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics and with the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, and know that I was in compliance with all three in this case.”

I also wrote a correction for my blog. That weekend, I started contacting business associates who might be able to tell me where I could turn for help defending the suit.

I tracked down an old college friend who had worked as a libel attorney in Philadelphia, where the suit was filed. She gave me two good leads:

Read the rest of the article on Joan Stewart’s The Publicity Hound’s Blog.