What is it legal to write about other people? It varies, obviously, from country to country. US-wise, there’s a good libel and slander definition and backgrounder over at the Libel Defense Resource Center, as well as one with some international comments at the UH communications school.
The ‘Lectric Law Library has what appears to be a rather old British definition, including examples such as “denying the truth of the Christian religion” and defining it to be any insult which may provoke someone to revenge. Seems that libel law was originally designed to prevent feuds and duelling.
In the US, libel is defined as written defamation, and slander is spoken or gestured defamation. And what, pray tell, makes up defamation? For starters, the speaker or writer must know that the statement is untrue or at the very least have a “reckless disregard for the truth.” When made of public figures, defamatory statements are defined not just as knowingly false, but made with actual harmful intent, such as trying to screw someone out of a job, a raise, or an election.
What does that mean? Well, merely insulting or offending someone is not a crime. Telling the truth or stating an opinion is never a crime. In the case of a public figure, making an honest mistake or even a willing distortion is not a crime. It’s illegal to make false accusations about someone in order to get them fired. Conducting a smear campaign against a politician is a crime, provided that they are innocent and you know it. For example, it’s perfectly fine to accuse Bill Clinton of murdering dozens of people, as long as you have all the analytical skills of a pile of rocks.
My question: who’s a public figure these days?