Monday, 21 January 2013

False Light

There's been an internet spat between Anthony Watts, operator of "The world's most viewed site on global warming and climate change", and Greg Laden, operator of the world's most viewed site written by Greg Laden.

Deviating from his usual subject of disbelief in anthropogenic global warming, Watts posted an item about a paper reporting signs of extraterrestrial life in a meteorite.  Unfortunately for Watts, the paper appears to be completely wrong, so when Laden read the post he wrote one of his own, mocking Watts, for not being "equipped to recognize this bogus science as bogus".  Watts, fired back a post accusing Laden of being a liar, on the grounds that Laden's screenshot of Watts' post cut off the second line, which qualified Watts' enthusiasm.  Laden was unimpressed.  Watts posted again, asking his readers whether he should launch a "false light" legal claim against Laden.  Laden laughed.

I've got nothing to add about the identification of alleged extraterrestrial diatoms, but I'm interested in the notion that the law in some US states allows bloggers to sue each other over what they've written, especially in view of the way US law has been influenced by the First Amendment.  I Am Not a Lawyer, but I can follow hyperlinks, so I followed the link Watts helpfully provides to a site discussing the "false light" law in Washington DC, where Watts proposes to sue.

The first, unsurprising point is that a false light claim requires "a false statement, representation, or imputation about the plaintiff".  There doesn't seem to be any false statement in Laden's article.  Laden has a screen shot of Watts starting his post with "This looks to be a huge story, the first evidence of extraterrestrial life, if it holds up", which of course is exactly what Watts did write.  It was a bit rude of Laden to cut off his screenshot before Watts' further qualification that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence", but that qualification is irrelevant to Laden's point, which is that the paper Watts cited doesn't constitute so much as ordinary evidence.  The screenshot is not a false representation of what Watts wrote.  Laden goes on to say that Watts "was not equipped to recognize this bogus science as bogus", but Watts in his follow up does not disagree, writing "I've never claimed to be an expert in meteors or diatoms".

The second point is that "false light" is a privacy tort.  It's not intended to protect a person in the act of publicizing his views.  I don't see that one can claim to operate a "most viewed site" and claim privacy protection for what one writes on it.

The third point is that, in so far as the plaintiff is a public figure, he has to prove "actual malice", which words carry a special legal meaning that the statement complained of was published knowing it was false or reckless about its truth.  Whereas Laden seems to believe strongly in what he wrote.  Is Watts claiming not to be a public figure when blogging?

The fourth point is that there are strong first amendment protections for expressions of opinion and fair comment.  And Laden was expressing a critical opinion of Watts' writing.

So, to this lay reader, any legal action by Watts would seem to be beyond hopeless.

Introducing his threat of legal action, Watts wrote "I spent yesterday conferring with lawyers about the smear that Greg Laden made against me", but he doesn't actually say what advice the lawyers gave him, resorting instead to the formula "it seems that Laden’s actions in his original and follow up story meet the legal tests for "false light".

I predict that Watts will not sue.

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