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Science. Communication. Community.

When the Court of Public Opinion Gets it Wrong: Libel Law & the Internet

(Credit: Flickr/joegratz)

(Credit: Flickr/joegratz)

“Depending on what you are writing about, you might want to pause before hitting the publish button to make sure what you are saying is accurate and fair,” says Dave Heller, a senior staff lawyer with the Media Law Resource Center.

By Jessica Morrison

Recent events in the #scicomm community got me thinking about what it means to write online: how we do it, the laws that govern what we can publish, and best practices to avoid dancing anywhere near those legal lines. So I asked Dave Heller, a senior staff lawyer with the Media Law Resource Center, to help me out with a Q&A about libel. According to his MLRC bio, “Heller is the editor of MLRC’s monthly MediaLawLetter, on media law developments, and is a regular contributed to MLRC’s other publications, including an annual survey of developments in media libel and privacy law.”

If you can’t get enough of this stuff, there will be a session at ScienceWriters next week about social media law, and suggestions have been offered to bring a similar session to ScienceOnlineTogether next year. Until then, the Q&A that follows is a good place to start to understand the laws that online publishers should be aware of or to get a re-fresher if it’s been awhile since you took Media Law in J-School.

Jessica Morrison (JM): What is libel? How is this different from slander?

Dave Heller (DH): Libel and slander are legal claims for false statements of fact about a person or company that are printed, broadcast, spoken or otherwise communicated to others. Libel generally refers to statements in written or other permanent form, while slander refers to spoken statements and gestures. The differences are still relevant in some states for determining the statute of limitations.  Slander claims typically have a shorter statute of limitations because of the impermanent form of the communication. The term defamation encompasses both libel and slander.

JM: When people write on the Internet in blogs, social media, or other public forums, is their work subject to libel laws?

DH: Yes. Website publishers, bloggers and even Tweeters are subject to libel laws for the content they write. There have been a number of trials and damage awards against bloggers, some with awards of over $100,000. In addition, many complaints have been filed against online speech.  Even if the complaints are without merit they can be timely and expensive to defend. While people who write on the Internet are subject to libel laws, another law protects bloggers and websites from claims over third party content such as user comments, reviews and the like. Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act immunizes online publishers from defamation and related claims over user generated content.

JM: What do defamatory statements look like?

DH: Here are some general examples, but not rules. Common types of defamatory statements include false accusations of criminal conduct, unprofessional or unethical business practices or personal immorality – for example, accusing a judge of taking bribes, accusing a doctor of malpractice, or calling a priest a pedophile. Again these are examples and not rules. Depending on the context the identical words may not be defamatory if reasonably understood as insults or humor. This is especially true of the Internet. Some courts have already recognized that speech on the Internet is loose and opinionated and should be treated as such. Moreover, defamatory meaning is often a function of the times. For example, for years it was considered defamatory to call someone gay or lesbian. But more recently, some courts have questioned that assumption and found that referring to someone as homosexual should no longer be considered defamatory.

JM: What steps should a writer take to avoid libel?

DH: Probably the most practical step is to realize that the law does apply to the Internet and that there can be consequences for what you write. Depending on what you are writing about, you might want to pause before hitting the publish button to make sure what you are saying is accurate and fair.

JM: What steps should a writer take if s/he realizes a post is libelous (after publication)?

DH: If you are sued for libel you should consult a lawyer to get advice about the law in your state and how it applies to your publication. As a practical matter, if you have homeowner or renters insurance, check the policy as it may provide some coverage for defamation claims against you. You can also consult the Digital Media Law Project at Harvard University which provides a lawyer referral service to defend claims over online speech.

JM: What resources would you suggest for writers who want to learn more about media law?

DH: The Digital Media Project provides a very useful online legal guide for online publishers.  For more detailed information, you can consult MLRC’s 50-State Survey of Media Libel Law.


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This entry was posted on October 25, 2013 by in Uncategorized and tagged , , , .
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