Saturday, May 16, 2009

Defamation Of Character: In Depth

With the return of a few politicians and sports figures to public light, the word “defamation” has come up in conversation a few times. As a legal term it is interesting to consider what this means, and why it would be included in our legal system.

First let us define the term “defamation”. M-W.com defines it as “the act of defaming another.” “Defaming is further defined as “to harm the reputation of by libel or slander.” So “libel” is “a written or oral defamatory statement or representation that conveys an unjustly unfavorable impression b (1): a statement or representation published without just cause and tending to expose another to public contempt (2): defamation of a person by written or representational means (3): the publication of blasphemous, treasonable, seditious, or obscene writings or pictures. “Slander” is just a restating of libel. Slander seems to be used for short indefensible verbal attacks. (Basically any political news conference ever aired.)

These definitions tend to miss the elements of truth and relativity. I think the Wikipedia article might get it a little closer. (I know Wikipedia is normally avoided as a source, but sometimes it is useful.) It says, “defamation In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel (for written words), slander (for spoken words), and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image.” I have a joke at work when I am supporting somebody who is doing something dangerous. I say, “You know there are two ways to the top, either be better then the guy in front of you, or take him out.” From the perspective of defamatory statements, this would mean that a person would have something to gain by uttering a nonfactual statement. This issue is expressly addressed by the Bible as being one of the ten commandments. “Thou shall not bear false witness.” It turns out in England they don’t really care about the truth of the statement, just its intent. In their case even a truthful statement (juicy gossip) when uttered if the teller is trying to gain social or financial advantage is considered defamatory. This from the country most renowned for it’s gossip.

Another word often associated with this term is “derogatory”. Defined as the act of disparaging; belittling. The reasoning behind these forms of human communication are the same. A functional community needs both full and accurate information in order to continue functionally. Thus my outrage over the lies told by the previous administration in the rallying of the US public to war.

So why would our governing representatives adapt a negative attitude towards this activity? Simple, because the courts or their representatives are rarely present at the incident that ends up in front of them, and since often legal issues are decided by a jury of peers, falsely influencing public opinion can cause damage to justice of the outcome. Think of the Salem which trials here. In the days of small communities as well as in the days of mass communication, this truth in statement is very important. The sad part is that it is also important to our political system, but these types of statements are often used in politics. It is called “going negative”. Sometimes the truth and fiction are separated by a thin grey line that would take more resources to fight then they are worth.

They irony of the idea of defamation of charterer is that we have a 24hr news cycle that is dedicated to the process of walking that thin line. I gave a comparative of news stories mid last year that were posted by The Associated Press and the same story posted by FOX news. The story was about a protest at the WTO meeting. There were thousands of peaceful protestors that were also infiltrated by a few dozen self proclaimed anarchist. This was a fact included in the AP story. The FOX story was titled “Anarchist Disrupt meeting with violent behavior.” They went on to tell nearly the same story as the AP article which was titled “Few problems plague otherwise peaceful demonstration”. The group that organized the peaceful demonstration was defamed by FOX who had an agenda to advance to appeal to their demographic. However, the area was grey, so no court case could really stand the test.

Think about it this way. If you mailed a letter to the other side of the country but knowingly put a false address on it, whose fault is it that the information didn’t make it? So if there are not measures to stop defamation of character, libel, slander, perjury, and other deragative statements, then whose fault would it be if bad and damaging decisions were reached by the people who work for the governing system?

The dichotomy of the situation is that in order to have a healthy democracy speech needs to flow unhindered by opposing forces. But that speech must be truthful and relative in order to remain on a positive track.

On a personal note, I have never attempted to advance an agenda here. Almost all of my perspectives are backed up by links and/ or citations of my sources. Every post is about the quest for the truth or to answer the question “why” is this reality. I invite anybody to challenge me if they see it otherwise.

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