There are approximately 30 million blogs on the internet right now, with many more being added every week. Assuming each person owns one blog, that’s a minimum of 30 million people spouting their personal views on everything under the sun. This is a positive development. The free flow of ideas and thinking keeps the world from becoming a stagnant pool of despotism with the appropriate green scum floating on top.
To borrow a word from Spiderman, however, ‘with tremendous power comes great responsibility.’ Blogging has evolved into a platform for people’s voices to be heard. However, we must be cautious not to abuse our position by engaging in irresponsible behaviour that undermines the credibility of bloggers and blogging. When good posts go bad, it continues to be an Achilles heel for us.
Libel and slander are the two types of defamation in the United States. The sole distinction between libel and slander is that libel is a false written statement about a person, place, or thing that affects his/her/its reputation, whereas slander is the vocal conduct of the same infraction in many states. The same denominator is that what is stated is incorrect, whether it is blogged on the internet or whispered to your mother in private.
I already know what you’re thinking since I’m psychic. ‘I am protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. I may say whatever I want as long as it is true.’ In a way, yes. As absurd as it may seem, the truth isn’t always the best defence in libel or slander cases. A judge may demand that the information transmitted is in the public interest to know, in addition to being truthful.
So, while disclosing that a major corporation’s CEO was caught stealing money from its employees’ retirement fund would almost certainly be thrown in civil court, notifying the world that your neighbour has stinky feet could get you in more trouble than you want. Even if that were true, why would knowing that your neighbour’s feet could clear Yankee Stadium be in the public interest?
Your right to an opinion is now protected by the First Amendment. If you believe the Mr Squiggly Toddler Toy is a waste of money, you are welcome to tell everyone within earshot, as long as you make it clear that it is your own opinion. Similarly, if someone expresses an unfavourable opinion about their experience with you and it is obvious to any reasonable person that it is their view, your legal remedy against them is significantly hampered.
Also protected are parody and satire. Saturday Night Live and South Park would not have made it past the first episode if they weren’t. The Fair Criticism and Comment provision also protect criticism of public performance, such as a symphony, a play, or even a book.
The internet has now added some interesting layers of complexity to the whole blogging thing. Libel has the capacity to traverse international borders rather than being contained inside a localized area, and not every government treats these instances in the same way. The issue of jurisdiction is one of the most pressing issues confronting courts around the world. If I live in the United States and slander someone in the United Kingdom, where does the lawsuit take place and what laws do we follow? Several instances have set a troubling precedent, implying that libel published on the internet can be sued anywhere in the globe.
There’s also the matter of third-party liability to consider. Assume you’re a responsible blogger who edits her writings carefully to avoid a libel lawsuit. On your blog, one of your readers makes a defamatory allegation. Is it possible for you to be held liable for that person’s actions? So far, the legislation has solely protected internet service providers by clarifying that they are not liable for how their clients utilize their services (as it pertains to defamation). Similarly, blog service providers like Google and Six Apart would almost certainly be protected from any claims stemming from a user’s usage of the service.
It may come down to whether or not you censor your comments to determine whether or not you will be held liable. You may be protected under Section 230 of the US Code if you enable comments to be made automatically (for US Citizens). If you approve comments before posting them, it might be a different scenario. It may be claimed that by posting the remarks, you are implying that you agree with them. To date, no one has appeared in court to dispute this, so we’re essential of forced to make it up as we go along.
Defamation is a delicate problem that must be handled with caution if you don’t want to end yourself in court. Here are some pointers to help you stay out of trouble. Please keep in mind that I am not an attorney. I’m not even given the opportunity to play one on television. If you or your blog deal with very contentious matters, or if you’re unsure how much difficulty you’d get into if you published that piece about your best friend’s guy, I recommend consulting a lawyer for the best advice.
1. Rename the characters. The simplest thing you can do is to replace or avoid using the name of the person you’re speaking about, as well as to remove as much identifying information as possible. You might want to perform some editing if a sensible person visiting your hometown can readily recognize the “mealy-mouth cow” you talked about online.
2. Include a disclaimer. On his website, Kevin S Brady has a great one. In the event of a lawsuit, even something as simple as “By using this blog site, you acknowledge that the thoughts expressed are the property and responsibility of their respective authors” may give some defence. (Please consult a real lawyer.)
3. Consider composing a parody or satire of your outburst. Extreme exaggerations that no reasonable person would believe are not constituted defamation since they are, to put it bluntly, unbelievable. But be careful: this style of writing requires a certain je ne sais quoi, and it can easily backfire. Make sure your entry passes the plausibility test by having it proofread by a reasonable person.
4. Be aware of your language. Make sure to utilize language that makes it apparent that you are expressing your thoughts on the subject. “That Mr Squiggly Toddler Toy is a piece of crap,” for example, makes it sound as if you’re declaring a fact but, in reality, you’re making a personal judgment on the toy. Safe bets include statements like “I think Mr Squiggly Toddler Toy is a piece of garbage” or “That Mr Squiggly Toddler Toy fell apart after the first use.” That is, at least in terms of the law.
5. Finally, but certainly not least, don’t utter lies. While this may appear to be common sense, how common is common sense nowadays? Really. If you feel compelled to lie about someone, you should get professional assistance in determining why you desire to do so. Because it’s unlikely that it’s to protect the public.
Blogging is a fantastic way to meet new people and stay up to date on current events, and doing it responsibly will only enhance the experience. Keep yourself safe, sane, and most importantly, have fun.