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What the Ruling on Skanks Means for the Blogosphere

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Judge puts an end to anonymous defamation online.

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The blogosphere will soon say, "Skanks for the long-needed injection of maturity."

A judge in Manhattan ruled yesterday that Google (GOOG) must reveal the identity of an anonymous blogger who made vicious and unfounded comments about model Liskula Cohen on a blog titled "Skanks in NYC." Cohen is a successful model and has appeared on the covers of major magazines, including Vogue and Elle.

The blog, posted on Google's Blogger.com, included photos of Cohen and captions calling her a "skank," and "ho" who devoted much of her time to "whoring." It went downhill from there.

"The thrust of the blog is that (Cohen) is a sexually promiscuous woman," Manhattan Supreme Court Justice Joan Madden said in her decision.

Thrust, eh? Good one, your honor.

In the next step of this made-in-tabloid-heaven story, the blogger will almost certainly be slapped with a defamation lawsuit. The model's attorney will argue that the statements are false and damaging. The blogger, an acquaintance of Cohen, probably doesn't have deep pockets so don't look for a multi-million dollar award. Cohen simply wants to stop the bile.

The court's decision doesn't gut the First Amendment or end life as we know it on the Internet. It means that the discipline demanded of newspapers such as The Washington Post (WPO) and The Wall Street Journal (NWS) will apply to bloggers who somehow missed this basic fact.

The ruling won't prevent anonymous comment as long as it's on point, cogent and clean. For example, an anonymous blogger could say Mr. Big's stock picks are worthless and here's why, citing reasons 1 through 99. The anonymous blogger might therefore conclude that Mr. Big doesn't know what he's yapping about. But based on the crummy stock tips, the blogger can't call Mr. Big a pedophile (or worse) without running the risk of legal action. But calling him a dummy would be fair game.

Cohen's case means the blogosphere grows up. The court ruling won't dull the comments of insightful blogs such as kausfiles.com, result in a snarkless Gawker, or, alas, make FishBowlDC any more interesting.

The Citizen Media Law Project sums up what every ink-stained wretch learned in newspapers and what some bloggers apparently ignored, or refused to understand:

As a general matter, defamation requires a false statement of fact, and the First Amendment protects statements of "pure opinion." The constitutional protection for statements of opinion shields the expression of subjective beliefs, ideas, and criticisms even when doing so is hurtful or offensive to others. It also protects one's ability to use hyperbole and colorful or extreme language when it is clear these are rhetorical ploys rather than assertions of fact. Not all statements of opinion are constitutionally protected, however. Statements of opinion that imply the existence of undisclosed facts can be defamatory if those unstated facts turn out to be false.

For the record, Cohen isn't the low-life "Skanks in NYC" claimed. She's a striking woman who has acquired the vapid stare fashion rags push as saucy (or something) and, of course, she's blessed with a voice.
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