Bloggers and internet posters beware! You could be a defendant in a libel suit. Know what libel and slander are, and how to avoid being tagged.
“But how can you say, ‘It was only talk, so no harm was done?’ Were this true, then your prayers, and your words of kindness, would be a waste of breath.”
– Nachman of Bratslav
Defamation … slander … libel. It doesn’t take a rabbinic scholar to tell you that words have the power to wound, to destroy lives, careers, and legacies. Any writer dealing in non-fiction narrative, biography or autobiography needs to be aware of his or her legal responsibility in disseminating information about someone, living or dead, celebrity or common person. Even if the perceptions recorded are accurate, writers still need to protect their interests in the event of a libel suit.
Charges of libel used to be the purview of printed material, primarily news publications. Today, however, bloggers, people posting MySpace and Facebook rants and others publishing items on the Internet that can be seen globally need to be concerned with libel. Innocent people have been hurt by defamatory postings, and many have successfully sued. The First Amendment doesn’t mean a writer can say anything; the right to free speech applies in the case of political speech (opinions), but does not protect the willful dissemination of false information.
The legal definition of libel is: “the publication and distribution of false information regarding an individual which is defamatory in nature, and has been published and distributed with malicious intent.” Subjects covered under the libel laws include allegations of criminal behavior, sexual or moral inappropriateness, or any allusions to a person’s competency (or lack thereof) in their profession.
The key words contained in this definition are “false information.” If a writer can establish that the information they have written and published is true, then they have made their case.
But “truth” is not necessarily an absolute, and there are steps every writer must take in order to get an audience – or a judge – to see things their way.
The first is to have impeccable sources of information. Yes, everyone is flawed, but some flaws create larger credibility gaps than others. For example, Juanita Broderick’s story of being raped by Bill Clinton was undamaged by her “flaw” of being involved at the time with another man while still married. The weight of her capacity as a successful businesswoman who was rational, down to earth and financially stable gave her an air of veracity. On the other hand, the publishing house which released – and soon retracted – the book, Fortunate Son, had depended heavily on the testimony of a drug user / dealer to support claims of President Bush’s cocaine use. Drug dealers and users are known to be less than credible, and with no corroborating evidence, the story was built on very shaky ground.
The second step is to verify all information with some sort of corroborating evidence. Public records, receipts, time cards, or any written evidence that comes from a source with “no horse in the race,” so to speak, are good backups for information received from a source. But take a lesson from Dan Rather, and be certain that any documentation has not been corrupted. At the very least, have more than one piece of evidence to support any allegations.
Finally, be sure you are accurate in describing the context of the behavior you are alleging. Recently, a judge successfully sued a television news team for libel. The reporter’s editorial slant was that this judge was soft on crime, and had little empathy for victims. The judge did not refute the truth of the cases reviewed; however, he stated that the cases described in their news stories were aberrations, and that an overview of all the cases adjudicated in his courtroom presented a more accurate picture of his judgments and behavior. Everyone can have a bad day, and everyone makes poor decisions at some time. Playing the “gotcha” game without presenting the entire picture can only damage your credibility as a writer, and could possibly cost you more than your reputation.
Public figures face the reality that they have fewer rights to privacy than an ordinary person. This doesn’t exempt writers from doing their “due diligence” if a celebrity is their chosen topic. A good writer would never depend solely on the marketing fluff spun by a celebrity’s publicist, but neither should they depend solely on information from the hairdresser, housekeeper, or gardener’s cousin. Once again, good sources make a good story, and also protect the writer from legal action.
Any time your story involves real people, scan it for libel potential. The following checklist helps to identify potentially libelous information.
The more “yes” answers to these questions, the greater the likelihood of a libel lawsuit. As a writer, it’s your responsibility to monitor the information you release. Settling a score through your writing may give you momentary pleasure, but the financial and emotional costs of a lawsuit last a lot longer.