Libel, Slander, and You

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?

Do Democrats Cause Cancer?

Not that I want to open the “Is Fox Biased” can of worms, but the Simpsons recently ran a really overt insult to Fox News: not just making fun of the channel, but running a news crawl with headlines like “Do Democrats Cause Cancer?” Why, asks Bill O’Reilly, is he so often labelled conservative? It’s more than Bill Moyers. He complains that he’s so often labelled, as a conservative or as a complete jerk, that it’s obvious bias. Well, maybe he’s labelled because he’s so adamant about it. Is Bill Moyers his equivalent liberal opposite? No, it’s Bill Maher (what is it with these guys named bill, anyway?). And trust me, Bill Maher is called a liberal blowhard just like Bill O’Reilly is called a right-wing blowhard. And that’s all I’m going to say about biased media.

Except that a woman who exposed lies published by Fox had her whistleblower case dismissed, becauseit’s perfectly legal to run a distorted, biased, and untruthful news agency. This is true: trust your sources. Because after all, freedom of speech means freedom to lie.

Speaking of freedom of the press, there’s a great autobiographical comic about one man’s relationship with pr0n. It begins, fittingly, when a friend finds a porno movie, and asks him, “Hey, wanna see two people doing it?” His obvious response: “Doing what?”

Pale

Been lying around moaning and feeling sorry for myself today. What fun.
Lyrics of the moment:

You better bring a fucking knife
till we see eye to eye
cause I’d rather cut your buttons off
than be caught in a lie.
Before I come to you I never wash my lips
cause when the music starts it goes right to my hips
and I break out in pale
–Kristin Hersh