Speech doesn’t get much more free than blogs and comments on websites.

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A website that castigates others as "evil doers" and "thugs" has exactly the same First Amendment protection as USA TODAY and The New York Times — and that's a good thing.

In a landmark decision on Friday, a federal appellate court held for the first time that blogs enjoy the same First Amendment protection from libel suits as traditional news media.

At issue were the blog posts of Crystal Cox, who accused Bend, Ore., attorney Kevin Padrick and his firm Obsidian Finance Group of misconduct in connection with his role as a trustee in a bankruptcy case. A jury awarded the plaintiffs $2.5 million in damages.

But the U.S Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit saw things differently, deciding that Cox's allegations were matters of public interest and that to sue her successfully, Padrick would have to prove her negligence — the same standard that applies when news media are sued. "The protections of the First Amendment do not turn on whether the defendant was a trained journalist," Judge Andrew Hurwitz wrote.

While the Supreme Court has previously observed that the lines between traditional news media and Web content have become blurred, this makes the first time a federal appellate court has said that journalists and bloggers are one and the same when it comes to the First Amendment.

No big surprise

But we already knew that. The purpose of the free press clause of the First Amendment was to keep an eye on people in power and maintain a check on corruption. Given the cutbacks in traditional media, bloggers have taken up the slack, serving as watchdogs — with attitude. And, of course, traditional reporters now blog daily, and prominent bloggers show up in traditional news media.

Yet we still see an uninformed attitude from some lawmakers and judges who seem not to understand that digital and social media deserve the same respect as newspapers, magazines and broadcasters. There is still resistance to including bloggers in a federal shield law, and as recently as 2012 a federal court judge concluded that "liking" a Facebook page was not protected free speech, a flawed decision overturned in September.

Speech doesn't get much more free than blogs and comments on websites, and long-established principles protecting opinion and hyperbole help to keep it that way. In this case, the 9th Circuit upheld a lower court's decision to toss out other libel claims against Cox, despite her assertions that her targets engaged in corruption, fraud, deceit, money laundering, harassment and illegal activity. She called them immoral "evil doers" and "thugs" and alleged that a hit man had been hired to kill her.

Hyperbolic attack

The appellate court concluded that Cox's post were so outrageous, no one would take them seriously, and that these attacks couldn't be the basis of a lawsuit. Apparently it also helps to name your site "obsidianfinancesucks.com." The decision in a nutshell: Bloggers saying libelous things about private citizens concerning public matters are culpable only if they're negligent, and if you do decide to attack someone online, make sure you go over the top.

Ironically, the federal court's decision protecting bloggers was based on Gertz v. Welch, a landmark Supreme Court case now in its 40th anniversary year. In lieu of cake and candles, we have a brand new case applying the landmark decision to the most contemporary of media.

As abusive and derisive as some bloggers may be, they're direct descendants of the first generation of Americans who used pamphlets and politically driven newspapers to attack their political rivals. It was then that the nation's Founders ratified the First Amendment, paving the way for robust discussion of public issues, regardless of medium. That's something worth celebrating.

Ken Paulson is the president of the First Amendment Center, dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University and a member of the USA TODAY Board of Contributors.

In addition to its own editorials, USA TODAY publishes diverse opinions from outside writers, including our Board of Contributors. To read more columns like this, go to the opinion front page or follow us on twitter @USATopinion or Facebook.

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