Just when it seemed the chest-thumping and mud-slinging in local blogdom couldn't get much more overblown, a Twin Cities blogger has found himself on the receiving end of a libel suit believed to be the first of its kind in this area. Until last week, Michael Brodkorb was anonymous in his role as author of the Minnesota Democrats Exposed blog.
As the name suggests, the site specializes in unflattering news and rumor about DFLers. Last week Brodkorb, a former state Republican Party communications and research director, came forward after he and his site were sued by Blois Olson, a PR firm president, former Democratic campaign manager, and co-publisher of the Politics in Minnesota newsletter.
The gist of Olson's complaint is that in late December, Brodkorb published unsigned items at MDE that defamed Olson by suggesting he had criticized former FBI whistleblower Coleen Rowley's congressional campaign out of spite, because Rowley refused to sign on with Olson's PR firm, New School Communications. Olson's attorney, Steve Silton, claims Brodkorb's assertion is completely false and defamatory, and that Olson hasn't done campaign work since 1998.
So a lawsuit like this must stand to have a big impact on political blogging generally, and anonymously authored blogs in particular, right?
Well, maybe not. Some observers think the whole episode may say more about petty political resentments than either the First Amendment or the body of established libel law.
"This [suit] sounds more political than anything," says Mark Anfinson, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues and advises several newspapers, including City Pages. "Libel is something that blackens your reputation," he says. "It's not silencing criticism you don't like."
Adds Eric Robinson, a staff attorney at the Media Law Resource Center in New York: "On its face, it's hard to see what [Brodkorb] said as defamatory," he says. "If the courts view him as a public figure, Olson will have to show evidence of damage to his reputation, and that Brodkorb published the information knowing it was false, or that he acted in reckless disregard of the truth. But to even get to that point, he'd have to show that he was harmed."
Brodkorb's retort at MDE characterized the suit as merely an attempt to silence anonymous bloggers. Silton says that’s hooey. "The fact that it did out him is a positive side effect," he admits. "But the real issue is that Mr. Brodkorb made a statement that was untrue and damaging. The only thing he avoided by being anonymous was accountability."
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