2-04 Citizen Journalists/Bloggers, Limited Public Figures, and The Streisand Effect


  • “Citizen Journalists” and the Digital Media Law Project
  • “Limited Public Figures”
  • The Streisand Effect: “When Trying to Hide Something Makes It More Visible.”
  • Digital Dissent Resources

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“Citizen Journalists” and the Digital Media Law Project

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND AND A CASE STUDY. In the 2010 decade, writers for blogs and other social media were sometimes called “citizen journalists.” Significant questions were coming up back then about whether bloggers and other non-professional writers had the same rights, ethical responsibilities, and legal protections as vocational journalists, reporters, and other such media workers.

Some of the uncertainty about rights and protections probably affected the emergence of defamation lawsuits against citizen journalists and even everyday people who posted online. For instance, in the Beaverton Grace Bible Church v. Smith (internet archive page link) defamation lawsuit, a local church pastor and his church sued five people for alleged defamation and loss of reputation related to negative Google and Yelp reviews, and/or other comments, about him and the church being legalistic and spiritually abusive. An Anti-SLAPP lawsuit was filed, claiming the pastor’s lawsuit was frivolous and intended to silence and punish the defendants for their public comments. (See page 2-07 SLAPP/Anti-SLAPP Lawsuits; Defamation, Libel, Slander for details on these kinds of lawsuits.)

As an Anti-SLAPP case, it received expedited treatment. The pastor was deemed a “limited public figure,” which meant more stringent requirements to prove defamation. (See section on “Limited Public Figures” below on this page.) He and the church lost the lawsuit. For an extended case study on that lawsuit, see the BGBC Lawsuit Archive. It is on the Spiritual Sounding Board blog, run by Julie Anne Smith, who was one of the key defendants in the BGBC lawsuit.

DIGITAL MEDIA LAW PROJECT, 2007-2014. The Digital Media Law Project (and internet archive Wayback Machine link) from Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society was previously called the Citizen Media Law Project. It posted essential resources for “citizen journalists” and anyone else engaged in online publishing. It was especially helpful for those writing on intense and potentially litigious topics, whether about abuse, violence, spiritual abuse, etc. The site was finalized in 2014, so I am providing both regular links and internet archive (WayBack Machine) links, in case the online version is retired and otherwise disappears.

Welcome to the website of the Digital Media Law Project. The DMLP was a project of the Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society from 2007 to 2014. Due to popular demand the Berkman Klein Center is keeping the website online, but please note that the website and its contents are no longer being updated. Please check any information you find here for accuracy and completeness. [Emphasis in the original.]

I will be looking for updated information as time allows, but the Digital Media Law Project archive is still a helpful resource. Be sure to see at least the Legal Guide (internet archive page link) and the Research & Response page (internet archive page link), and go from there.

Their case overview pages are also very helpful, not just for the content but also for an example of how to put together a summary of a spiritual abuse case study. The sections they use include: Summary (dates, key people, status of the case), Parties, Description (plus major updates and key links), Details (information on categories that are the equivalent of “tags”), and Court Information and Documents (downloadable documents that are in the public record).

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“Limited Public Figures”

For those who document and write about abuse, assault, violence, spiritual abuse, etc., it is important to keep in mind that this topic deals with public safety and matters in “the public interest.” This is especially so when it involves those who are considered “public figures.” This category does not just include celebrities and politicians, but others who may have a more limited platform but still are in the public eye, such as speakers, authors, and organization leaders — including church pastors, ministry directors, and board members and staff.

The consideration of who is a “limited public figure” is highly relevant to the issue of defamation lawsuits. As people with a public reputation, the criteria for proving slander or libel are more stringent. This is usually summarized as needing to meet three criteria in order to prove harm to reputation: (1) the person accused of slander/libel did in fact lie, (2) knew he/she lied, and (3) did so with malicious intent. It is difficult to prove all three components, especially malice. And when bloggers/reporters state conclusions about people, these are typically opinions.

(See page 2-07 SLAPP/Anti-SLAPP Lawsuits; Defamation, Libel, Slander for more details.)

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The Streisand Effect:

“When Trying to Hide Something Makes It More Visible.”

The Streisand Effect is well summarized as “When trying to hide something makes it more visible,” according to The Economist explains, What is the Streisand effect?, by T.C., in The Economist; April 13, 2016.

The Streisand Effect happens when attempts to suppress or censor media reporting actually end up creating more media interest and attention. It’s named after Barbra Streisand, who sought to have satellite photos of her Malibu home removed from the internet. But, given her celebrity status, her attempts to suppress the photos actually led hundreds of thousands of people to view and/or download them.

Those who write about situations of abuse, assault, violence, spiritual abuse, etc., and alleged cover-up, frequently see this phenomenon emerge. Reported perpetrators and those who enable and/or cover for them do something in attempts to silence the victims, survivor advocates, activists, reporters/bloggers, etc. But it backfires and draws even more attention to them. In 2017 and 2018, we’ve seen The Streisand Effect in action via attempts to deflect attention, or veiled justifications in the form of pseudo “apologies,” by people credibly accused of assault or abuse in the aftermath of Harvey Weinstein,


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Digital Dissent Resources

Information to be added.

“Digital dissent” resources will look at the use of social media and other technological tools of the internet era that parallel the traditional tools used in social activism and investigative reporting.