In a 2004 piece for The Guardian, “Why Kerry Should Sue the Sun,” Sidney Blumenthal discusses Matt Drudge’s release of “information” that John Kerry was having an affair just when his campaign was escalating. He connects this to the inadequacies, in his view, of American libel law. “In the US,” he writes, “there is virtually no legal protection for a public figure, especially a political one, from defamation. Libel laws are de facto defunct.”
Reading this made me realize that, well, I don’t know too much about libel laws. I know that public figures are far less journalistically protected in the US than in the UK, but what does that mean?
According to Cornell University’s Legal Information Institute, “Libel is a method of defamation expressed by print, writing, pictures, signs, effigies, or any communication embodied in physical form that is injurious to a person’s reputation, exposes a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or injures a person in his/her business or profession.” Following this definition, the Kerry incident would certainly fall under the definition of libel: his reputation was injured, he received hatred from the public and his campaign, or professional endeavor, was damaged.
However, in the US, that definition in full really only applies to private individuals, that is, the average person. For public figures— any official/politician/celebrity/celebrity-du-jour, it’s only libel if the statement was made with actual malice and/or negligence. This basically only applies if something was published with full knowledge by the publisher that it was false.
In the United Kingdom, meanwhile, the defamation policies were tightened in 2012’s new Defamation Bill when lawmakers decided that defamation could be claimed with very little substantiation. The law simultaneously was designed to increase protection of writers stating their opinions in publications. “Freedom of speech will be given more protection and the libel law reformed in England and Wales,” the BBC reported. “Claimants will have to show they have suffered serious harm before suing for defamation.”
So, if you were as baffled by libel as I was, hopefully this cleared up a few things for you too. Libel laws seem quite important to me; they’re a major protection from false claims. How can we have truth in our reporting without them?