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What is libel? Avoiding defamatory statements
This handout is based on information from the Associated Press Style and Libel Guide.
If someone writes for publication a defamatory statement (a statement in which a person’s reputation is seriously damaged), and that statement is false, and that person is identified in print, even without a name, then libel charges can be brought.
Associated Press’s definition of libel:
Libel is the publication of writing, pictures, cartoons, or any other medium that expose a person to public hatred, shame, disgrace, or ridicule, or induce an ill opinion of a person, and are not true.
Actions for libel result mainly from news stories that allege crime, fraud, dishonesty, immoral or dishonorable conduct, or stories that defame the subject professionally, causing financial loss either personally or to a business (Associated Press Style and Libel Guide 251).
To call a person a murderer, a cheat, a child molester, an alcoholic, a liar, a thief, a drug abuser, etc., can be considered grounds for a libel case.
Any accusation that a member of society has violated common standards of ethical behavior can lead to a libel suit. In short, libel is publication of false information about a person that causes injury to that person’s reputation.
TRUTH is one libel defense. Remember that it is very difficult to prove truth.
FAIR COMMENT is another libel defense. The press can write an opinion about the performance of anyone who is a public performer including a politician, athlete, movie celebrity, etc. However, if you say something defamatory about that person’s private life, you can be sued. You can say someone is a lousy writer; but, you can’t say the writer is a lousy drunk (unless you can prove it’s true).
“The publication of defamatory matter that consists of comment and opinion, as distinguished from fact, with reference to matters of public interest and concern, provided they do so fairly and with an honest purpose, are not libelous, however severe in their terms, unless they are written maliciously” (Associated Press Style and Libel Guide 251).
MALICIOUS means that the writer knew the information was false and only wrote it to injure the person being written about.
Another libel defense is PRIVILEGE. Privilege applies to libelous statements that may occur during government proceedings or in public documents. All public proceedings, including court sessions and most public records, are privileged and can be quoted even if they are defamatory. They, must, however, be quoted in context and not used as a malicious statement used out of context.
In cases regarding public figures, the person who says he was libeled about his public performance, must also prove the libel had malicious intent (reckless disregard for the truth).
ANY DEFAMATORY STATEMENT THAT CAN’T BE PROVEN TRUE AND WASN’T TAKEN DIRECTLY FROM A PUBLIC RECORD OR GOVERNMENT PROCEEDING HAS TO BE CONSIDERED DANGEROUS TO PRINT.
In writing about trials and arrests, make sure you check the record. Before the person is found guilty, always use words like “alleged” or “accused.” In America, everyone is considered innocent before proven guilty.
The Right To Privacy:
When a person becomes involved in a news event, voluntarily or involuntarily, he forfeits some rights to privacy. Similarly, a person somehow involved in a matter of legitimate public interest, can be written about with safety.
However, a story or a picture that dredges up the sordid details of a person’s past and has no current newsworthiness can be considered libel (The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual 261).
Public figures are generally thought of as people who seek the limelight, who inject themselves into public debate. The court says that involvement in a crime, even a newsworthy one, does not make one a public figure.
This is important because if you are proven to be a public figure and someone defames your job performance or ethics or whatever, you have to prove libel and you have to prove malicious intent.
If you are a private person, you only have to prove libel, but not malicious intent. Consequently, it’s easier for private citizens to win a libel case than it is for a public figure to win a libel case.
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