This is a guide to web libel which only applies in the United States and is very simple in scope. Of course, the various legal procedures will differ for each situation and in each state.
Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Law defines libel as â€œa false published statement that injures an individual's reputation (as in business) or otherwise exposes him or her to public contemptâ€�. This is often used against journalists, TV show hosts, or authorsâ€”but is also a serious problem online. This is because the Internet is a collection of largely-anonymous blog postings, forum posts, and articles.
The anonymity of the Internet assures that malcontents, misanthropes, and nihilists will destroy good men's reputations just for fun. Companies, individuals, and products can all suffer horribly from online libel.
So we have an elaborate and confusing definition, but what does online libel look like in practice? Some celebrities, businessmen, or companies are maligned in anonymous blog posts or articles. These blog posts and articles show up in the search results. Search results have become more and more important in recent years because Internet users go to search engines first in order to get the information they need about people, restaurants, or products.
So is there a way to combat online libel? The answer is yes, but with a huge caveat. It is probably not the instant solution you think it is.
Freedom of speech is guarded jealously in the United States. Since libel is an abrogation of that right it can often be difficult to bring libel or libelous statements to a court and come away with anything other than frustration. This is especially true of online libel because the offender is more likely to be overseas, totally anonymous, or be protected from charges of libel by freedom of the press. This means it can be quite difficult to even find the name of the offender, much less serve them papers or receive damages from them. In most regards, the legal option is difficultâ€”but it can be helpful in certain cases.
So what are those cases, and how do you know them when you see them? First, the libelous statement must be presenting itself as factual. This means that anything that is opinionated or satirical cannot be labeled libelous. However, the intention of the writer is not what matters. Courts will make their decisions based upon whether a reader could understand the statement in question as a verifiable fact, which is a statement which can be proven true or false. That means that the burden of proof rests upon the claimant to prove that the statement is false. Furthermore, one cannot sue forums or website owners for the statements made by users if those statements are unregulated, this was cemented in the Communications Decency Act passed in 1996 by the United States Congress and the court decision in Cubby Inc. v. CompuServe Inc. However, in direct contrast to that precedent, the court determined in Stratton Oakmont, Inc. v. Prodigy Services Co. that since Prodigy Services had a policy of screening comments that were posted on their boards they were liable for whatever was posted. So in the case of Compuserve, they were exempt because of a perceived inability to screen all postings or messages, whereas Prodigy Services was held culpable because of their policy of screening. In this sense, website publishers are only liable if they have both the ability and the knowledge of the libelous statement, just like the publisher of a newspaper is held responsible for the falsehood spread in his newspaper by a reporter. In most states there is a statute which protects publishers and editors if they print a retraction or correction concerning the libelous statement.
There is also a key distinction to be made between libel against private and public figures. For reasons that are far too convoluted to discuss in this short guide, courts have determined that there is a major difference between libeling public and private figures. While private figures have an immovable right to privacy, public officials are expected to have thick skin and to have every detail of their existence combed overâ€”such is the price of public life. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan is the leading case dealing with this distinction. As a consequence, private citizens only have to prove to the court that the libeler acted negligently, while public figures must prove that the libeler was intentional or malicious in his statements, or at least exhibited â€œreckless disregardâ€�.
If you have been libeled online, or think you have, you should seek out a qualified lawyer who specializes in such cases. Here a couple of the Internet's most respected lawyers in this field.
The Philadelphia law firm Woodcock Washburn is known throughout the Eastern Seaboard as one of the leaders in matters of intellectual property litigation and e-commerce.
Peter Adediran Internet Lawyers is a firm with international credentials based in London. They work exclusively on Internet-based law.
Martin H. Samson is a partner at Davidoff Malito & Hutcher who has represented corporate clients on matters having to do with online defamation for many years. He runs a site about Internet-based law at InternetLibrary.com.
The Media Law Resource Center, which used to be known as the Libel Defense Resource Center, is a great resource for any individual who thinks they have been libeled, either online or offline.
Currently the most effective way to handle web libel may be by shaping your search results. This is our specialty. If you would like more information please click here.