Libel Law in the Age of Multimedia
What Is Libel Law?
Making untrue statements about someone, especially statements that damage their reputation, is potentially punishable by law. The act is known as defamation or defamation of character. When someone verbally says something damage about another it is called slander. But if the offending statements are broadcast through the media or printed in any form, this is called libel.
However, if a person states an opinion or makes a joke, this is not in and of itself defamation. This is why comedians and media writers can get away with saying, mostly, whatever they want about anything or anyone. The joke turns into libel when the statement can be proven true or false, and turns out to be false. For instance, if a comedian Tweets a joke about a celebrity being pregnant by some other married celebrity, it’s ok, as long as it’s true. If it’s not true, the comedian has just opened themselves up to a potential lawsuit based on libel law. There is an additional test that must be met however and that is one of intention.
What does libel mean in law?
Libel law has a long history, dating back to pre-1500 England. Libel laws were historically used to protect the government, making it a crime for any English citizen to criticize the government. The laws were made to protect the country from perceived political instability that would occur if citizens or the print media began to call into question actions of the government.
The laws made their way to the U.S. after the revolution. President John Adams and his colleagues in the 5th Congress passed the Sedition Act in 1798 that made it a crime in the relatively newly formed United States to criticize the fledgling government. Under the controversial act imprisonment and fines were the punishment for those who, “write, print, utter, or publish . . . any false, scandalous and malicious writing” that criticized the government.
The Supreme Court was not yet in full swing to be able to rule on the constitutionality of the laws in regards to the first amendment. But the court of public opinion, along with a change in government that brought Thomas Jefferson to the presidency, allowed the Sedition Act to quietly expire in 1800.
Today, libel law relating to criticism of the government has been largely abandoned. Libel law is used primarily in civil cases now to determine recovery of damages. According to the Law.com dictionary, the libel law definition is: “to publish in print (including pictures), writing or broadcast through radio, television or film, an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation, by tending to bring the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of others.”
Libel laws fall under State tort law. The law is defamation and the two torts are libel and slander. The elements of each are nearly identical.
Libel Law, Social Media and the Young
As you can imagine, libel law is a growing field of law because of the increased use of the internet. Tweets, Facebook posts, blogs, YouTube, Instagram and all the other new ways we communicate, not to mention the old school television and telephone, can all be places where people get into trouble with the libel laws.
We’ve all seen cases of bullying by kids and teenagers who take to the internet and start blasting nasty statements about kids they don’t like. It may seem harsh to charge a kid with libel, but just ask the kid who now feels that everyone is staring at her and judging her for something that is not true or that she never did.
There are strict rules for proving libel, including proving that actual damages occurred, either to the victim’s reputation or monetary damages. This can be difficult in the case of bullying but certainly not impossible.
With new freedoms to share information come new responsibilities for accuracy that many adults are not even able to handle. Kids are even more vulnerable to making mistakes that lead to libel lawsuits and it’s up to adults to teach them better.
Libel Law and the Food Industry
Libel laws took on a new twist in part because of a 1989 segment that aired on the popular, and highly regarded CBS investigative show “60 Minutes”. The segment highlighted the potential health and environmental problems caused by the chemical Alar. Washington state apple growers used Alar to regulate the growth of their fruit and to enhance the fruit’s color.
Some 40 million people saw the show and were told that Alar was a dangerous carcinogen and that growers were putting their children and families at risk. Something like mass-hysteria ensued as apples were removed from stores and school cafeterias, congressional hearings were held and the growers lost millions.
Eventually Alar was removed from the market but the effects of this incident reach far forward into the 21st century. Because Washington state apple growers felt they had no specific legal footing to stand on regarding libel against food products, many states began to pass food disparagement laws in an effort to help food producers and protect them against libel.
The Veggie Libel Laws
Known as the “veggie libel” laws, many feel the laws are out of date and do nothing but protect some of the largest food processors in the United States from criticism and questions about their practices. Consumer groups are concerned that the health and safety of the public is being overlooked because of these old laws.
In addition, the veggie libel laws have not been thoroughly tested yet, at least not all the way to the Supreme Court. Back in 1998 the Texas Beef Group, a cattlemen’s organization, brought a case of libel against famed talk show host and celebrity Oprah Winfrey. The case charged that Winfrey had libeled the beef industry on her show and cost the cattlemen millions of dollars. The courts did not agree. The jury in the case, heard in Amarillo, Texas, declared that Winfrey had stated a strong opinion but that the opinion was based on fact and more importantly, was proven to be true. This meant that the cattlemen could not use the veggie libel laws and collect damages from Winfrey.
More recently, in South Dakota the agricultural giant Beef Products, Inc. is suing ABC news over its’ coverage of a product that has come to be known as ‘pink slime’. Pink slime made headlines in 2012 when ABC ran a series delving into the product, how it is made and how it is used. The consumer reaction was strong with consumers demanding pink slime-free products. BPI is alleging lost business, plant closures and harm to its reputation due to misinformation. The case is still in progress.
Criticism of Veggie Libel Laws
Consumer watchdog groups, the press and environmental groups have voiced strong opinions that these food libel laws, or agricultural disparagement laws, do nothing but protect huge agricultural corporations that have control over the food supply. Worse, they say, the laws make it difficult and sometimes a crime for anyone to criticize their products.
Fear of being sued by a huge agricultural corporation, under libel laws that can allow for billions of dollars in total damages is no doubt a deterrent to some who might question food production practices in the U.S. If ABC can be sued for billions, local reporters in food farming or producing communities stand to lose everything if they begin to question the huge corporations that control farming in the United States today. These companies market themselves as family-farmed base, with plenty of bucolic farm scenes and happy animals on the packaging and in their television commercials. But consumers, and the media, who look behind the marketing message encounter the full face of the agricultural industry. This industry has the money and the clout in state and local legislatures to encourage legislation aimed at protecting their businesses and the jobs that come with them. In addition, consumer groups argue that powerful agricultural lobbies have Washington all but locked-up when it comes to the battle over balancing the good of the public and the need for corporations to make money.
The veggie libel laws have not yet made it to the nation’s highest court, the Supreme Court, to truly be tested for constitutionality. Until then, victories like Oprah Winfrey’s and perhaps a victory by ABC—as many insiders feel is imminent—may continue to frustrate those trying to make money providing food products to the American public.
Oprah herself reflected the strong feelings of many consumer groups, when saying after her victory at trial, “Free speech rocks,”
Protection Against Libel Versus Free Speech in the Internet Age
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution provides for protection of the right to free speech. Libel laws make an attempt to balance this right with the responsibility of those in a free society to speak the truth.
Libel law is a fast growing area of the law, mostly due to the rapid increase in both the methods and the timing of our communications. The way we exchange and access information today is unprecedented and laws written decades or even centuries ago must be adapted and applied to today’s modern internet.
One example of this need for adaptation is the libel cases against Google’s autocomplete functionality brought by Albert Yeung, an entertainment tycoon. Yeung brought the case before a court in Hong Kong alleging that when users of Google’s search engine typed in his name the autocomplete function suggested the term “Albert Yeung triad”, a reference to gang membership and criminal activity.
Yeung argues that his reputation is damaged by Google’s publishing of this term with his name. The argument from Google is that they are not publishing the autocomplete suggestions, they are merely delivering the results of an automated computer task that in no way involves human beings.
Other cases making their way through state courts involve such issues as posting of false information about someone on the internet. One, or more, of these cases will likely blaze the trail for a Supreme Court determination on the balance between free speech on the internet and an individual right to privacy and the protection of their reputation.
Libel laws have always been rather fluid, changing with the times and American public opinion, especially as related to our First Amendment rights. From the days of the Sedition Act, based on the fear that negative public opinion of a government trying to establish itself would in fact bring it down, to today’s complexities of communication, libel laws are constantly being tested.
Many will agree that it is up to the courts to find a balance between free speech and privacy. Many others are alarmed that libel laws that are created based on our new ways of communicating run a very serious risk of curbing our freedoms and abilities, to share information readily and with those that perhaps need it most—using the Internet.
The Internet was created as a network without many rules. It has become a way for anyone, anywhere, who has access, to gain knowledge and to share knowledge with the world. Because of human nature, this freedom is and will be tested. The United States, because of its strong commitment to the right of free speech, is likely to be on the forefront of the action and debate that is beginning to heat up worldwide.