August 8, 2009

How to prevent against online libel and defamation

Bill_of_Rights_Pg1
The Bill of Rights

A brief guide for citizen journalists and bloggers

Target audience: Journalists, bloggers, nonprofits, cause organizations, NGOs, general public.

Guest post by Mitch Ratcliffe
RatcliffeBlog

There is much that bloggers can learn from journalists, who have learned how to cause the most trouble possible without landing in jail over the course of centuries. I highly recommend you pick up a copy of The Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law ($13 at Amazon.com, which is the essential text for many journalists.

In addition, here’s a good source for students and other beginners.

If you want to go deep and learn a lot, read this piece from the Massachusetts Bar Association’s Journalists’ Handbook.

It’s worth understanding this stuff even if you don’t want to be a journalist, because anyone can be sued for libel, slander or defamation.

The first thing to understand about all subjects relating to journalists’ privileges is that they are different everywhere. There is no international standard set of laws, though journalistic professional societies have pressed for these kinds of uniform expectations. Most of what I’ll lay out here relates to the United States, where the press enjoy the most liberal protections available. In Canada, for example, there is no presumption that a journalist can protect their source. In much of Europe, the subjects of photographs retain far greater control of pictures through their moral rights (PDF), or “droit moral,” which provides both the photographer and the subject protection from the unauthorized reuse of the image in whole or in part — juxtaposing the image of a person into an advertisement, for instance, which is common in digital media is prohibited without their permission.

Elements of defamation

Defamation, slander and libel are the same thing, essentially, but each is defined based on the way a false statement about a person is conveyed. According to ExpertLaw.com’s entry on Defamation, Libel and Slander Law, the general principle behind all three must include the following elements:

1. A false and defamatory statement concerning another;
2. The unprivileged publication of the statement to a third party (that is, somebody other than the person defamed by the statement);
3. If the defamatory matter is of public concern, fault amounting at least to negligence on the part of the publisher; and
4. Damage to the plaintiff.

In the context of defamation law, a statement is “published” when it is made to the third party. That term does not mean that the statement has to be in print.

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