punisher. Persons convicted of criminal libel can be
fined, imprisoned or both, depending on the gravity of
Any libel that tends to disturb public peace and
order can be a criminal offense. For instance, if a popular
public figure were to be libeled to the extent that riots
resulted, the libel would be of a criminal nature.
Obscene libel can be a criminal offense because it is
considered to have an ill effect on public morals.
One of the most grave types of criminal libel is
seditious libel that which defames an established
government, or one of its agents, in an attempt to thwart
or overthrow it. Criminal libel, if directed at the U.S.
government, becomes a federal offense and can result
in a long prison term for the libeler. Seditious libel is
rare, but it has occurred in cases when news
organizations or individuals have written violent
defamations of the government in their opposition to
federal laws or the decrees of federal courts. Mere
opposition to a court decree is not necessarily libelous
(though it could be seditious). Remember, there is no
libel involved until there is defamation.
DEFENSES AGAINST LIBEL ACTION
An individual, a newspaper or other news
organization is not without some degree of protection
when being sued for libel. In the following text, we
cover some of the partial and complete defense
strategies that might lessen the damages assessed
against a defendant in a libel suit.
There are eight basic partial defenses against libel
action, as covered in the following text.
INNOCENT MISTAKE/ACCIDENT. The first
mitigating factor to consider is innocent mistake, or
accident, which appears in the libel codes of most states.
Almost self-explanatory, it means that a defendant can
be excused partially if it can be proved the libelous
material was published unintentionally or without the
publisher realizing it was defamatory. The innocent
mistake law does not remove liability, but it may reduce
RETRACTION, APOLOGY OR CORREC-
TION. A retraction, apology or correction, usually
printed with the same prominence as the original
libelous material, will sometimes satisfy a person who
claims to have been libeled. Nevertheless, the libeled
party still retains the right to bring suit. Although
retractions, apologies and corrections are three separate
(partial) defenses, they are related and often overlap. A
retraction is often accompanied by a correction when it
is employed, and both, almost always, are accompanied
by an apology. One disadvantage of a retraction, or
apology, is that it puts the original defamatory remark
before the public eye again, although hopefully, in a
much nicer form.
An example to the contrary is this story about a
southern editor of a few years ago: The editor was
bitterly opposed by certain people in the town and did
not hesitate to become quite harsh on them in print. One
man insisted he had been libeled and demanded a
retraction. The next issue of the paper appeared with the
following line in large type:
JOHN GREEN IS NOT A BRAYING ASS
In that example the editor successfully and wittily
continued his feud; but regrettably, he also compounded
the original libel.
REPETITION. The defense of repetition can be
used when a newspaper uses a libelous story that has
been printed elsewhere, in a wire service article for
example. In a number of recent court decisions,
newspapers were not held responsible for libels
committed by wire services, since it was recognized that
editors could not possibly check out every story
received from those sources.
LACK OF MALICE. In the lack of malice
defense, punitive damages are usually not awarded if the
publisher can demonstrate good faith and justifiable
SELF-DEFENSE/REPLY. A self-defense or
reply defense can sometimes be successful if the
publisher can show that the libel was a response to a
previous attack made by the person claiming libel.
UNCONTRADICTED RUMOR. The uncon-
tradicted rumor defense can sometimes serve to lessen
the damages that could be awarded in a libel case if the
publisher can show that the libel was merely a published
version of widely circulated rumors that the plaintiff had
made no effort to deny.
USE OF AUTHORITY. In employing the use of
authority defense, a publisher would try to show that the
libel originated from a source that could reasonably be
expected to be accurate. A successful presentation of this
defense, while not exonerating the publisher, could
serve to lessen the damages awarded.