Libel law and the Right to Privacy (two completely different things)


Libel is printed false defamation of character.

Slander is spoken (even on video) defamation of character.

Neither slander nor libel is often considered a crime. People or organizations who believe themselves victims of either take civil action, or sue, in civil court.  (Criminal court is where you go if you commit burglary or murder—in that case it’s you against the state.) The penalty for libel is generally a large sum of money to pay for the “damage” to the victim’s character.

To avoid a slander or libel suit, practice good reporting: check your notes, get both sides of any issue and run corrections promptly.

If a case makes it to court, there are three defenses you can offer up if you are charged with libel or slander:

           1.    Truth – If you can prove what you wrote or said is true, there is no libel or slander.

2.    Fair comment – If someone or something offers itself to the public, it invites criticism. The folks who made the “Twilight” movie made it for public consumption. If you write a review saying it’s the worst movie ever made and your readers avoid the movie because of that, you’ve essentially damaged the movie’s reputation and cost the makers money. Whether you are right or wrong, the makers cannot charge you with libel because you were offering fair comment on a public work. The same holds true for public persons – movies stars, school officials and people running for office.

3.    Admit errors – If you run a correction as soon as you hear you made a mistake, the courts may go easy on you because it shows you weren’t malicious.


Public person – A public person is someone who deliberately puts themselves into the public eye by virtue of their job or social role. Libel and slander is harder to prove for these folks because they must show that the journalist got the info wrong and knew it was wrong before it was reported. See Fair Comment above.

Private person – Joe Six-Pack and Mary Bikini. Joe the Plumber was a private person before he let the McCain campaign use him as a prop. After that, he became a public person.


Privacy Rights

You have the right to be left alone.  If a journalist violates this, you can file a breach of privacy suit in civil court. If you are a journalist and you are found guilty of invading someone's privacy, be prepared to pay a lot of money.

A journalist can violate the right to privacy by:

* Investigating someone with methods beyond a search of public records or requesting interviews of associates.

* Interviewing or taking a picture of a minor without parental consent.

*  Getting information for a story without properly identifying him or herself as a journalist.

* Using even public information in a way that is not  within the public’s right to know.

-- Cribbed from experience and "Journalism Today" by Donald Ferguson and Jim Patten