Are bloggers subject to the same limits as professional journalists when it comes to libel law?
A defamation suit filed earlier this month against conservative blogger Brian Hornback aims to answer that question.
Knox County Republican Party chair Ruthie Kuhlman has sued Hornback for accusing her of bullying "a young Republican leader" and saying she advocated the replacement of two prominent GOP legislators. Kuhlman says these accusations are false and demands that Hornback reveal the source who provided him with the information. She is also asking $100,000 in punitive damages.
Hornback has been at odds with the local GOP establishment since he supported Zach Wamp for governor in 2010 over Bill Haslam. He has been critical of Kuhlman since she was elected chair in January—perhaps on the "friend of my enemy" theory, since she is strongly supported by publisher/politico Steve Hunley, a longtime Hornback foe.
Attorney Herb Moncier filed the suit Oct. 17 in Knox County Circuit Court, charging Hornback of "wanton, reckless and willful misconduct" and acting "with a motive and a willingness to vex, harass, annoy, and injure" Kuhlman and others.
At issue are five allegations published in Hornback's blog, Shock and Awe, on Sept. 26 under the headline, "Knox County chair verbally attacks young Republican leader." Hornback said the "chair" (he did not identify Kuhlman by name) attempted to bully the "young Republican leader" into resigning as vice president of the Young Republicans and the West Knoxville Republican Club "if he knew what was good for him," and said that she "had already ensured he was blackballed by the money in the party."
A sixth allegation arose from a Sept. 27 post when Hornback, who like most conservative East Tennessee Republicans is unhappy with appointed school superintendents, accused Kuhlman of telling another party official that state Rep. Harry Brooks and state Sen. Becky Duncan Massey would need to be replaced "if we are ever to achieve Elected Superintendent status [sic]."
Chad Tindell, another former GOP chair, has been a frequent target of Hornback's criticism and says he has considerable sympathy for Kuhlman. He said he hopes her case will define some important boundaries for bloggers.
"I don't think anyone should be allowed to write lies about people. He's written some things about me that were not true," Tindell says. "I guess it's how some people have fun… Maybe it's time a court rules on the limits of what can be published on the Internet."
On Oct. 4, Hornback reported that he had received a letter from Kuhlman's lawyer giving him 10 days to issue a retraction and apology. He refused, saying that he'd checked with his sources and they stood by the information they had provided. He also denied having malicious intentions and refused to reveal his sources, invoking a reporter's right to safeguard confidential sources.
Unfortunately for Hornback, however, Tennessee's shield law, sometimes called the "reporter's privilege," does not apply in libel suits.
Attorney Don Bosch says libel law hasn't caught up with technology regarding bloggers.
"Are bloggers merely nuts standing on a street corner with access to a sophisticated medium, or do they rise to the level of journalist? I would be surprised if they are ever afforded the kind of protection that a true journalist has," he says. "Many of the bloggers I've seen don't write in an intelligent enough manner to be considered journalists, nor would their sources withstand scrutiny."
Moncier also served Hornback with a list of demands that he give up names, e-mail addresses and telephone numbers, as well as copies of e-mails and text messages and cell phone records from Aug. 1 to Oct. 17, 2013, when he received Moncier's letter. [Hornback did not reply to a request for comment by press time.]