Crystal Cox lost a defamation trial in 2011 over a blog post she wrote accusing a bankruptcy trustee and Obsidian Finance Group of tax fraud. A lower court judge had found that Obsidian did not have to prove that Cox acted negligently because Cox failed to submit evidence of her status as a journalist.
But in the ruling, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco said Cox deserved a new trial, regardless of the fact that she is not a traditional reporter.
"As the Supreme Court has accurately warned, a First Amendment distinction between the institutional press and other speakers is unworkable," 9th Circuit Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel.
Steven Wilker, an attorney for Obsidian and the trustee, pointed out the 9th Circuit still concluded that there was no dispute that Cox's post was false.
"Ms. Cox's false and defamatory statements have caused substantial damage to our clients, and we are evaluating our options with respect to the court's decision," Wilker wrote in an email.
Eugene Volokh, a UCLA School of Law professor who represented Cox, said Obsidian would now have to show that Cox had actual knowledge that her post was false when she published it.
The ruling on Friday is particularly important in the era of online content, Volokh said.
"In this day and age, with so much important stuff produced by people who are not professionals, it's harder than ever to decide who is a member of the institutional press," Volokh said."