Law school libraries are filled with shelves of books regarding libel and slander. The two main types of defamation have been debated and studied by legal experts and scholars.
I cannot even begin to claim that I know the intricacies of defamation law. With this short disclamer made, I have many concerns and thoughts about the presence and dissemination of defamation in our culture.
This concern is more than textbook curiosity. When I was a broadcaster, I had to be very careful with what I presented to the public. One of the dangers of providing the public with information over the airwaves, is that of lawsuits over possible slanderous statements. Because I sometimes also edited a free, printed newsletter, and later helped edit a website, I had to be careful of writing anything that might be thought of as libelous. So, yes, I understand and greatly respect truthful, accurate communications.
What I find troublesome is the nature of communications that are considered immune from defamation laws. As a layman, I understand the need for some sort of immunity from defamation statutes in courts of law. That is attorneys, witnesses, jurors, and judges who are directly involved in furthering public legal affairs. Beyond these cases, there are questions of citizens and the exercise of free speech, as defined by the First Amendment to the US Constitution.
One of the most peculiar forms of immunity regards that of the apparent lack of regard towards, so-called, public figures. I’ve often marvelled at the lack of ethical standards regarding slanderous and libelous statements about such people as the US President. The defamation is practiced by fellow politicians and media commentators. These types of disparaging remarks are also made about other office holders and candidates for public office. These remarks frequently hinder and obscure honest, public discourse.
Even more troubling, to me, is the extension of immunity from defamatory content regarding other “public figures” like journalists, celebrities, and certain “outgroups” of people. This defamation isn’t just made “accidentally” or inadvertently. The untruths and disregard for accuracy are made deliberately and with malice.
Why is it OK to lie or smear public figures, but it’s not OK to do the same thing about the average person? It has always been unethical and harmful to engage in the practice of gossip. To refrain from communicating partial truths or untruths should be seen as the proper way of conducting ones affairs. Those people who make it their business to defame others should be shunned, not praised.
The subject of defamation came to my mind after I noticed that on this date in 1949, the US Federal Bureau of Investigation issued a report naming movie industry figures as members of the Communist Party. Some of the luminaries included: Edward G. Robinson, Fredric March, John Garfield, and Paul Muni.
FBI Director, J. Edgar Hoover had teamed up with the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) to “expose” supposed “subversives” in the film industry. It was this report that triggered the infamous Red Scare of the 1950s.
The FBI report relied upon hearsay and anonymous accusations by “confidential informants”. Hoover, and Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy accused several public officials and public figures of various charges. The most frequently used accusations regarded supposed disloyalty, communist sympathies, and homosexuality. The string of vindictives and accusations became known as the “Red Scare”. The lesser known homophobic witch-hunt was referred to as the “Lavender Scare”.
The early June 1949 FBI report said that “confidential informants” testified to the FBI the US Communist Party was using Hollywood personalities to further Communist Party goals. Oscar-winning Fredric March was especially targeted because he had expressed criticism about America’s growing atomic bomb arsenal. Furthermore, March had earlier campaigned to provide humanitarian aid to the starving citizens of the Soviet Union after World War Two.
The defamation of Americans who disagreed with Senator McCarthy’s political views was a source of great media exposure to the obscure politician. He built upon this “fame” by creating committees to interview “public figures” and regular citizens who were suspected of being communist. In many cases, the targeted people only needed to espouse liberal or left-leaning opinions to attract McCarthy’s attention.
During this Red Scare, people became afraid to express any sort of disagreement with US policy or the actions of Federal and State governments. The ultimate results were the destruction of careers and private lives and reputations.
Many of the targets of the accusations were unable to find work. Sometimes the public accusations led to suicides. Thousands of people’s lives were ruined because their names ended up on some sort of blacklist.
Tough-guy character actor, Edward G. Robinson said, “These rantings, ravings, accusations, smearing and character assassinations can only emanate from sick, diseased minds of people who rush to the press with indictments of good American citizens. I have played many parts in my life, but no part have I played better or been more proud of than that of being an American citizen.”
The worst of the Red Scare ended in 1954, with the Army-McCarthy hearings. The Senator’s popularity ended with the US Senate voting to censure McCarthy. He became one of the very few to be so disciplined.
Unfortunately, the problems of defamation and smearing have not gone away. In fact, it seems to have resurfaced in a more generalized, virulant form, these days. I have no quarrel with the need for honest, public discourse and disagreement with governmental policy nor the expression of dissent.
I just wonder how far can malicious, defamatory communications against “public figures” be taken. Besides, just who is a “public figure”. This seems to be too legally ambiguous. How much gossip about the private lives of people such as movie stars and high-profile athletes is acceptable and legal?
How about news stories involving relatively unknown individuals? Is there legal permission to discuss those individuals’ possible divorce or supposed radical left or right wing political affiliations? Why aren’t there better protections for “public figures”? Why is it accepted that defamation and gossip go “with the territory” of being a “publicly famous person”?
Even after the demise of Senator McCarthy, a lingering residue of unfair suspicions and unofficial blacklisting continues. Reform and civil-rights activists are frequently accused of having communistic or “socialistic” leanings. The politically disadvantaged and oppressed individuals suffered in the aftermath of the McCarthy Era. There is a resurgence in accusatory remarks being used in the attempts to roll-back the civil rights gains of women and minorities.
The use of half-truths, libel, and slander are powerful and effective weapons against people. The acceptance and legality of these tools is a sensitive issue. There is the need for balance between protecting individuals and the exercise of free speech. I wonder how this tricky balance can be found and maintained. We’re not supposed to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre. Why can we publicly ask an innocent person such questions as, “When did you stop beating your spouse?”
The desire to find scapegoats is an age old problem in human history. This weakness makes defamation of others so efficiently harmful and tragic.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes Criss Jami. “Just because something isn’t a lie does not mean that it isn’t deceptive. A liar knows that he is a liar, but one who speaks mere portions of truth in order to deceive is a craftsman of destruction.”