Rafe Banks, a lawyer in Georgia, got involved in a nasty dispute with a client over how to defend him on a drunken-driving charge.
The client, David Milum, fired Banks and demanded that the lawyer refund a $3,000 fee. Banks refused.
Milum eventually was acquitted. Ordinarily, that might have been the last Banks ever heard about his former client. But then Milum started a blog.
In May 2004, Banks was stunned to learn that Milum's blog was accusing the lawyer of bribing judges on behalf of drug dealers. At the end of one posting, Milum wrote: "Rafe, don't you wish you had given back my $3,000 retainer?"
Banks, saying the postings were false, sued Milum. And last January, Milum became the first blogger in the USA to lose a libel suit, according to the Media Law Resource Center in New York, which tracks litigation involving bloggers. Milum was ordered to pay Banks $50,000.
The case reflected how blogs ? short for web logs, the burgeoning, freewheeling Internet forums that give people the power to instantly disseminate messages worldwide ? increasingly are being targeted by those who feel harmed by blog attacks. In the past two years, more than 50 lawsuits stemming from postings on blogs and website message boards have been filed across the nation. The suits have spawned a debate over how the "blogosphere" and its revolutionary impact on speech and publishing might change libel law.
Legal analysts say the lawsuits are challenging a mind-set that has long surrounded blogging: that most bloggers essentially are "judgment-proof" because they ? unlike traditional media such as newspapers, magazines and television outlets ? often are ordinary citizens who don't have a lot of money. Recent lawsuits by Banks and others who say they have had their reputations harmed or their privacy violated have been aimed not just at cash awards but also at silencing their critics.
"Bloggers didn't think they could be subject to libel," says Eric Robinson, a Media Law Resource Center attorney. "You take what is on your mind, type it and post it."