Posted April 1, 2009 10:32 am by with 9 comments

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There are two things that are certain of 99.9% of bloggers.

  1. We tend to write things that could get us in legal trouble
  2. We can’t afford an attorney to help us understand libel laws

Public Citizen is aware of both of these certainties and has created a free document that should help us all stay out of libel courts: Guide for Bloggers and Non-Profit Organizations About Writing With Libel in Mind.

Instead of wasting this April Fools day reading less than funny attempts to fool you, why not spend an hour reading this great primer on what you can and cannot say about a company or individual. I thought I had most of this stuff buttoned-up but after reading the guide, I’ve learned some things that I didn’t know. For example:

…this does not mean that you can avoid exposure to a libel suit simply by characterizing a factual statement as an opinion. If you say, “In my opinion, Senator Tower is a notorious drunkard,” the three words at the beginning of the sentence that will not protect you from a successful libel suit. However, if you set forth the facts on which an adverse opinion is based, no libel claim can be based on the resulting opinion so long as the stated facts themselves are true.

So, you can’t just call someone a criminal, and hope to protect yourself by simply adding the words "in my opinion."

However, this is an interesting libel defense for those making claims about someone that’s already in the reputation basement:

Another protection for the writer flows from the concept that, to be libelous, the statement must harm the target’s reputation or diminish his or her respect in the community. Some subjects of criticism are “libel proof” because their reputation is so bad it cannot go any lower. If you accuse an admitted Cosa Nostra capo of jaywalking, or a Klan leader of using racist language, their reputations may be so low that it cannot get even worse even if your specific charge is false. But relying on such a defense is playing with fire.

The guide concludes where it starts–with a strong recommendation to have a "libel review" policy in place that ensures each of your posts are reviewed by someone with a strong libel-law background. Yeah, right–who has that time or money? However, at a minimum, I recommend every blogger take a look at this guide and prep yourself on the laws of defamation–if you don’t, you’re a jerk…in my opinion. 😉

(Hat-tip TechDirt)

  • good article, thanks for the info

  • It’s great that you pointed this out. I don’t think people realize simply labeling something as an opinion or using “it was my opinion” is a defense. The only absolute defense to libel is truth.

    Kate’s last blog post..Oil Prices Going Up As Economy Falters

  • I think Youtube commenters should give this a read…if they CAN read. I can make this libelous statement implying a substantial number of Youtube users can’t read because I’m fairly sure it’s a large enough group ;0) If I implied johnnycomelately702 can’t read, that could be libel. Cool, I learned something today and applied it to my life 😀

    PS I love the Twacker landing page. Hi-larious!

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  • So explain to me how Perezhilton gets away with calling people whores, sluts and crack addicts? Isnt he slandering those people? I’ve always wondered about that.

    LatestRant’s last blog post..Can I really make money online free?

  • What if I preface things like,

    With all due respect, in my humble opinion, you are a jerk for calling us jerks.

    I said so with all due respect and it’s a humble opinion based on a fact 😉

    Hershel Miller’s last blog post..First-Time Homebuyer Tax Credit

  • @Hershel – actually you probably get away with it because it’s a true statement. 😉

  • Actually the best thing about libel laws in the US is that if a suit is filed the defense has the right to full discovery- that is why Perez can say what he wants – few people want to be that exposed in court! Also there are good laws protecting the ISP,then of course many of us don’t actually live in the US!

    Lis Sowerbutts’s last blog post..How To Create Your On-Line Business For Beginners

  • Thanks for the info. I suppose this is also applicable for tweets, commenting etc.

    Raghavan’s last blog post..Weekly Wrap-up : March 22, 2009 – March 29, 2009

  • Very useful post. I remember discussions like this long long ago during the reign of Usenet and Netnews…and it’s sad when the honest fact-finding gets hit by lawyers who demand the removal of your experiences.

    Barbara Ling, Virtual Coach’s last blog post..Rainbows follow ME in search of GOLD – Make Money and Lose Weight