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California Extends Libel Protection to Internet News

SACRAMENTO (CN) - In a victory for online content and speech, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill adding libel protections to Internet publications into law Monday.

Assembly Bill 998 amends existing libel statues that applied solely to newspapers to add "daily or weekly news publications" in either print or electronic formats.

California's original libel retraction statute was adopted in 1946 and required an individual to ask publishers to retract an alleged libelous statement before they can sue for punitive damages.

Online publications will be treated the same under AB 998 and publishers of blogs and online news outlets must be asked to retract statements before being sued for libel.

The bill's author, Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, said the state's libel protections were outdated and that his bill will prevent unfair lawsuits against online-only media.

"The California libel statue was in desperate need of an update, and I am pleased that with the passage of my bill we will see a common-sense approach being used instead of more lawsuits," said Wagner in a statement. "This bill is a win for both the newspapers and the readers."

Wagner, an attorney, initially introduced the bill in February 2014 but it wasn't heard before a legislative deadline because of a backlog of bills in the Assembly Judiciary Committee. Wagner revived the legislation in January and it passed both houses easily before being signed by Brown Monday.

AB 998 removes distinctions between print outlets and online versions of daily news sites and gives added libel protection to publishers. California's libel retraction statute was originally enacted in order to give newspapers or radio stations the chance to fix factual errors when breaking news.

However, because the old libel laws did not apply to all news mediums victims of libel were suing online publications without asking for retraction.

Last year, a California appellate court ruled that websites do not receive the same libel protections as newspapers or radio broadcasts and that it was up to the Legislature to amend the outdated libel retraction statute.

"Had the Legislature intended the statute to apply to defamatory material published on an online website, it could have amended the statute to say so, or add a statute to include such websites within the definition of "newspaper," the panel wrote.

The bill received just one no vote as it breezed through both houses and was supported by the California Newspaper Publishers Association. The group testified at several hearings and said the bill provides protections to smaller online publications and bridges the gap between outdated terminology caused by "recent technological developments in news and delivery platforms."

"This [bill] encourages potential plaintiffs to utilize the correction process to quickly address the potential damage that harmful statements may cause and, if no correction is forthcoming after a demand is made, it provides a hammer to remedy the reputational harm triggered by the defamatory statement," the group wrote in support of AB 998.

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