Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Primer on Libel and Slander law for Bloggers

Now, back to the show.

It seems like every couple of months, another blogger gets sued, or is threatened with a lawsuit, because of something they wrote in their blog. The most recent and hilarious example involves a blogger who had some interesting things to say about a former (veeeeeeery former) Playboy playmate. I won't weigh in on the exact issues presented, either in the blog in question or in the (theoretically upcoming) lawsuit. But I will say that bloggers need to have a decent, working understanding of libel and slander law here in the U. S. And so, in the spirit of helping my fellow Bloggers, I, CowboyLaw, hereby present this PRIMER ON LIBEL AND SLANDER LAW FOR BLOGGERS.

There are really only three things you need to remember about libel and slander law (which, for the sake of convenience, we'll just call defamation law): (1) only defame public figures; (2) make sure you have some basis for your defamation; and (3) the truth is always a defense. I will demonstrate each in turn.

1. Only defame public figures.

I can freely and openly state that President Bush recently murdered four children. This is not defamation (in part, for reasons I'll discuss below), and I won't get in trouble. However, if I was to say that my good friend Shaun Jackson is actually a crack man-ho, I would probably be committing defamation. Defamation is a statement about someone that is untrue and which damages their reputation. Obviously, both of the above statements count (more or less). However, people who are "public figures" like Bush get substantially less protection against defamatory statements. Why? Because we want the press to be free to criticize them without having to worry about constant defamation lawsuits (like they have in England). Public figure status isn't just limited to political figures, either. Thus, I can say things like "Tom Cruise finds the idea of sex with a man far more palatable than does Ann Coulter, who prefers the soft, yielding flesh of women," and fear no repercussion. Private people like Shaun Jackson, however, get a lot of protection.

2. Have a reasonable basis for what you say.

It's not enough just to pick on public figures. You also need to have some shred of evidence to back up your ludicrous claims. That should be no problem, because the internet will support almost any contention you want to make. Thus, for example, this website supports my comment above that Bush killed four children recently. As for Tom Cruise liking the taste of man-steak, Google turns up 2,780,000 webpages dedicated to talking about Tom's obvious preference for the hairier sex. My theory about Ann Coulter is strictly of my own devising, but c'mon: it's OBVIOUS this woman LOVES a good, New England clam bake. And this fact drives her insane homophobia (p.s., Google only reports 406,000 webpages which address the question of whether Ann Coulter frequently finds herself elbow-deep in another woman, probably because Ann Coulter is, amazingly, even more annoying than Tom Cruise). See, if you just go off spouting completely basis lies about a public figure (like, "Mr. Pennybags is a huge fan of glass plating), you can still get sued (and yes, I did just rip on the guy from Monopoly). So, have something to back up your outrageous statements.

3. Remember: if it's true, it's not defamatory.

I can call O. J. Simpson a killer all I want, and he can never (successfully) sue me. Why? Because even though a Los Angeles jury found there was not sufficient evidence to convict him of murder (mostly because the jury members had their heads shoved entirely up their own asses), another Los Angeles jury (in the civil lawsuit brought by Nicole Brown-Simpson's family) found that there was sufficient proof to satisfy them that O. J. killed Nicole (by the way, for those of you baffled, remember that the burden of proof in a criminal case is beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas the burden of proof in a civil case is 51% of the evidence supports it). True statements, no matter how damaging they are to the subject's reputation, are never defamatory. But, they're also not that entertaining. It's much more interesting to speculate about how many double-dongs Ann Coulter owns, and whether she and Tom Cruise have ever shared one.

Remember, boys and girls: this isn't legal advice, and I don't advise you to defame anyone. Rather, this is an amusing (mildly) and accurate (mildly) picture of the state of the law. If you want real advice, you need to hire me.

9 comments:

Miles said...

I thought if you wrote it, it was libel. Also, in order for it to be libel, you had to know it was false, and intentionally write that about someone knowing it was false and you were doing it to intentionally hurt them. (Malice aforethought?)

Maybe you said that, but again, I don't read. I play games.

miles said...

Oh, and Ann Coulter eats more pussy than the average patron at a chinese restaurant.

Lord Bling said...

So, Chinese = cats, and Korean = dogs?

Angelo said...

Interesting post and good info. Although, my experiences with a lawsuit brought against me (that I am still batting) have definitely given me a broader perspective on the matter. Despite criticizing (not defaming) a public figure (corporation), I still managed to get sued by this corporation and its owner (even though the owner was never fully identified in the post).

But thanks for taking up the issue anyway, it's nice to know that at least some people are discussing the serious threat that frivilous and fruitless litigation poses to the blogosphere.

You can read about my lawsuit tales here...
http://www.angelocarusone.com/?p=102

Miles said...

Yes, Bling. I hear Tom Cruise LOVES the Koreans! (Especially the boys.) [the little boys.] {Tom Cruise needs penis.} *inside him.*

CowboyLaw said...

Miles:

1. Yes, written comments are libel and spoken comments are slander.

2. If you defame a private citizen, it is NOT necessary that you know what you said is wrong. It is enough that what you said was ACTUALLY wrong.

3. Intent to harm is never relevant. I can say something true with the intention of harming you, and it still isn't actionable. I can say something about a public figure which I have only scant support for, and intend to harm them, and it still isn't actionable.

Angelo:

As I tell my clients all the time, it is impossible to "keep" people from suing you. All you can do is put yourself in a position to win. I feel for you, and wish you success and luck in your lawsuit. When I become independently wealthy, I will start working pro bono defamation cases for bloggers.

miles said...

Thanks,
In the spirit of CowboyLaw--
Jake Plummer and Tom Cruise are lovers. Throw in Mike Shanahan, too.

Lord Bling said...

Derrick Thomas and Christopher Reeve were lovers too. And throw in Tricky Dick Vermeil.

Angelo said...

CowboyLaw,

Somehow stumbled across this post tonight and the comments. Since I found it, I may as well update with some good news. I won my case on summary judgment to dismiss motion. The plaintiffs appealed, but eventually abandoned that effort.

I'm glad I was able to successfully defend myself without an attorney and I certainly feel for any blogger that is placed in a similar position to the one I was in. I certainly second your sentiments regarding working pro bono for bloggers, maybe, I'll get the chance to do that some day.