USS Clueless - Libel on the web

Stardate 20031027.0423

(On Screen): In August of last year, someone threatened me with vague threats of a libel suit, hoping to cow me into removing something from this site that he didn't like. In response, I wrote this article where I laid out my understanding of the current jurisprudence in the US concerning libel as it applies to the Internet, in order to show that I didn't fear him because he had no chance of prevailing. The summary is that it's really damned hard to prove that one internet user has libeled another, because it can plausibly be argued that everyone who participates on the Internet is a "limited purpose public figure" and thus would have to prove "actual malice" in order to prevail as plaintiff in a libel suit. Both of those are legal terms of art having very specific meanings derived from a SCOTUS decision in 1964, with those meanings not being obviously related to the common meanings of the words. (In particular, "actual malice" has nothing to do with rancor. It is rather "knowledge before publication that the material was false, or reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.")

It's really tough to prove that, and though a lot of people complain about libel and rattle their legal sabers on the subject, in general I tend to be extremely skeptical. So I was skeptical when I read Charles Johnson's comment to the effect that he'd been libeled by Indymedia, until I actually went and read what he linked to. Folks, that is "actual malice". It's almost a textbook example of it, based on my understanding as a layman.

Public figures can prevail in libel suits, but only when someone's been extremely stupid or careless. Carol Burnett sued the ass off of the National Enquirer after it published articles about her claiming she had a problem with alcohol. But that was because the Enquirer did exhibit reckless disregard for the truth. It's hard to libel a public figure, but it ain't impossible if you're determined enough.

If that post on Indymedia is not "reckless disregard for the truth", I sure as hell don't know what is. It is factually false when it claimed that Charles had been arrested for multiple felonies. That was something that could easily have been checked. There was no reason whatever to believe that anything remotely like that happened.

Moreover, there's no chance whatever of them getting away with the "joke" defense. There's no attempt at humor here, and no chance of convincing a jury that there was one. IANAL, but my best guess is that Indymedia has about 12 more hours to withdraw the article, post a public apology, and to personally apologize to Charles before their position becomes impossible to defend. Given that anything posted to any Indymedia site propagates to all the others around the world, it may well already be too late.

I hope Charles nails their hides to the wall.

And if Charles doesn't do it, I think there's a significant chance that Reuters might. The last thing they want is their name attached to something like this. It libels Reuters almost as much as Charles.

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