LIBEL, RIGHT OF PRIVACY, FREEDOM OF
INFORMATION AND COPYRIGHT
Is the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution the
same to a reporter as an umpires call em as I see em
license? Is the new city official really a crafty,
To the grief of many a publisher and reporter, there
is no absolute license to print whatever one pleases
about a private citizen or about the government.
Free speech and free press, as guaranteed by the
Constitution, have two sides: on one side, the right to
use them; on the other, the duty not to abuse them. When
the news media abuses its right to a free press, they
commit an age-old offense known as libel the
defamation of a persons reputation.
Because your job is to write about the Navy, you
should become acquainted with the danger of
defamation. This chapter provides information on what
you should guard against when releasing material to the
news media or publishing it in internal publications. It
also acquaints you with the right of privacy and some of
the laws of copyright.
LIBEL AND SLANDER
LEARNING OBJECTIVE: Define libel and
slander; identify how libel is committed and
determine who is responsible for a libelous
Libel is a difficult offense to describe. Libel laws
are state laws, and there are differences in the definitions
of libel from state to state. For the purposes of this
training manual, we will define libel as follows:
Libel is a published (written, printed or
pictured) defamation that unjustly
holds a person up to ridicule,
contempt, hatred or financial injury.
All states agree that libel is a defamation, an act that
tends to degrade or lower a person in the eyes of others.
The effects can subject a person to ridicule, hatred or
contempt (or all three), or they can cause a person
financial injury by hurting the persons property or
business or by causing loss of employment.
As you can see, defamation does not have to be
sensational to be libelous. A picture with the people
erroneously identified in the caption can be libelous. A
newspaper headline, even if the story under it is
blameless, can be libelous.
Radio and television are not exempt from libel laws.
A picture on television can be as libelous as one printed
in a newspaper. A radio broadcast can defame an
individual, although there is some dispute in the courts
as to whether the offense would be libel or slander.
Slander differs from libel chiefly in that it is spoken
instead of printed, written or pictured. In other words,
slander is defamation by oral communication. A major
distinction between libel and slander is found in the
word published. Since slander is an oral defamation,
the courts tend to view it as a lesser offense than libel
because the words, once uttered, are quickly gone. Libel,
on the other hand, is a published wrong and is felt to
endure longer and thus cause greater injury.
Consequently, the law is much stricter in dealing with
libel cases than with slander claims.
However, the subject becomes a bit cloudy when
oral remarks (slander) are read from a written script or
when they are recorded. Therefore, you should exercise
equal care to avoid both oral and written defamatory
True statements about a person also can be libelous.
Many people think that libel results only from untruths
told about another. This is not so. The truth can
sometimes defame an individual as much as a lie.
A simple defamation, however, is not always libel.
The following are three conditions that are necessary
before a statement becomes libel:
There must be a true defamation. In other
words, a persons character or property must in
some way be degraded.
There must be clear identification of the person.
This identification, however, does not have to be
by name. A writer (or an artist) can very easily
leave no doubt in the publics mind as to a
persons identity without mentioning the
individuals name. Even if only a few persons