Internet libel and defamation

Internet libel and defamation

Postby webmaster_bb » Thu Feb 13, 2014 2:03 pm

Short version:

False or libelous postings, or those that maliciously defame others, will not be tolerated on this discussion forum.

Long version:

Defamation is communication which tends to injure an individual’s reputation. The communication is calculated to injure the reputation of another by exposing him/her to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or impairs the standing of a person as being honorable. Defamation may be a statement of fact, or an expression of opinion which implies allegations of defamatory facts. The objectionable words must be measured by their most natural meaning and in the sense in which they would be understood by those to whom they were addressed. Such words must be measured by the natural and probable effect on the mind of the average reader rather than subjected to the critical, and sometimes cynical analysis of the legal mind.

In the context of our chess club and this discussion forum, a privilege permitting defamatory statements may be recognized if the same are made in good faith on a subject matter in which the person communicating has an interest, or in reference to which he has a right or duty, and most importantly, if made and limited to persons with a corresponding interest. The essential elements are good faith, an interest to be upheld, a statement limited in scope to this purpose, a proper occasion, and publication in a proper manner and to the proper parties only. Even this privilege is not protected if the defamatory statements are made with malice. In addition, where this privilege is permitted, then it will only be recognized if communications are made for a proper purpose and the statements are not made in excess of interest or duty (i.e., the statements contain extraneous, false or irrelevant matters not germane to the inquiry) and there must not be excessive publication which reaches persons who have no interest in the inquiry, and the statements must not use excessive, violent or intemperate language, or otherwise goes beyond what a privileged occasion demands.

When the internet is the means of publication of a privileged defamatory statement, then a special issue arises. The defamatory statements reach far beyond merely the individuals with an interest in our local chess community, and literally millions of people unrelated to the private, not public, interest involved can see the defamatory statements.

The Supreme Court crafted the First Amendment privilege of making defamatory statements for the benefit of institutional media and its decisions make it clear that these three questions must be answered “yes” for the privilege to apply: (1) Is the person making the statements entitled to protection as a member of the institutional media? (2) Is the person involved a public figure? and (3) Is the speech at issue of public concern? To be part of the institutional media normally means, television, radio, newspapers and periodicals, but it does not address or include the medium of the internet. If the answer to all three questions is “yes” then he/she is a “journalist” and potentially defamatory statements can be made with impunity and without legal consequence. The person defamed must be a “pervasive public figure” who affects matters of “general public concern”. This would include government officials, famous people, or even an extravagantly rich person. Being a matter of “general public concern” means it affects many people, from everyone on the planet to everyone in the county or city, or a significant number of people from many locations, for example.

Although internet communications may have the ephemeral qualities of gossip with regard to its accuracy, they are communicated through a medium more pervasive than print. For this reason, they have tremendous power to harm reputation. Once a message hits cyberspace, millions of people worldwide gain access to it. Even if the message is posted in a discussion forum frequented only by a handful of people, any one of them can republish the message by printing it or, as is more likely, by
forwarding it instantly to a different discussion forum or by copying/pasting the message in an email or to social media such as Twitter or Facebook. And if the message is sufficiently provocative, it may be republished again and again.

Consequently, the internet is a particularly bad place for the unwary commentator to make private defamatory statements about an individual. There are legions of lawsuits filed against bloggers or website commentators who improvidently say things which harm people and businesses. Free speech is important and the internet is a good place for free speech, but it must be limited to civilized and absolutely true speech to be protected. It is not a place for excessive insinuations, exaggerations, accusations or derogatory declarations due to the internet’s infinitely powerful ability to disseminate bad information. The extraordinary capacity of the internet to replicate almost endlessly any defamatory message lends credence to the notion that “the truth rarely ever catches up with a lie”.
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