|From:||Melissa Phong <melissap@...>|
|Date:||Friday, January 14, 2000, 23:15|
>> > Let's be bright enough, if we can, to draw a distinction between
>> > rights of free speech* and being an asshole. I have a right to say
>> > whatever I like as long as it's not libelous or slanderous,
>Of course, what exactly constitutes "libel" is not often all that clear.
Semi off-topic, but maybe food for thought for anyone thinking of adding
libel to their language.
Of course, I am not an expert. My info comes from a half-remembered
communication law lecture I once attended.
I do not know if corporations or institutions can claim libel, this
applies only to individuals.
In the U.S. a written communication is defined as libelous if it is
1) provably false
Writing "John Smith is ugly" is not libelous because it cannot be proven
Writing "John Smith has two noses" is potentially libelous.
2) and if those responsible for the communication failed to "try" to
verify it (usually defined as being told the same thing by two different
You cannot print that "Bill Jones leaves work early to climb trees" just
because Jane Doe says so. You have to get a second source. (However,
anonymous sources can be acceptable depending on the case.)
However, it's harder to prove libel if the person libeled is "in the
public eye." The definition of "in the public eye" varies widely from
district to district. Without question government officials are within the
public eye. Libel laws were developed back in the day to protect free
speech and free press without allowing people to outright lie.
Gray areas: Are movie stars or other celebrities "in the public eye"?
Can a community paper claim that the head of the local Parent/Teachers
Association (PTA) is within the public eye?
Can a cooking magazine claim that a well-know chef is in the public eye in
the culinary world?
If you are considered "in the public eye," for a communication about you
to be considered libelous
it must be
1) provably false
2) knowingly false. That is, you must prove that those responsible for the
communication (for example, author, editors and owners of publication)
knew it was false, not just that they failed to verify it.
3) damaging. It may be untrue that Senator Cindy Smith has two noses and
the New York Times may have known it was untrue when they printed it, but
it is unlikely that the fact that it was printed hurt Senator Smith's life
at all. So it could not be libelous.
The quickest and easiest way to prove damages is to show a monetary loss,
but other kinds of damages can be acceptable.
If a paper reports that movie star Steve Stevenson downed 8 vodka shots
before driving home after the Oscars and Mr. Stevenson is subsequently
asked to resign as the voluntary head of Celebrities Against Drunk
Driving, he could probably claim libel even though he is not losing any
Finally, you cannot usually claim libel for things printed in reviews,
commentarys or editorials, etc. The entirety of those types of columns is
generally considered opinion and therefore, not provably false.