were to realize the persons identity, libel is still
The libel must be published. This does not mean
that it must be printed in a newspaper. You will
recall from the definition that libel can be written
(as in a letter that is seen by a single third person)
or it can be pictured (as in a photograph or
cartoon). Spoken libel, or slander, is also
considered by the courts to have been published.
As a Navy journalist, you will not have to
concern yourself too much about the legal and
technical differences between libel and slander.
It is sufficient to know that any defamation may
be considered unlawful, regardless of whether it
is written or spoken. One of your jobs is to make
sure that defamatory statements do not reach
print or the airwaves through a Navy news
Libel, as an offense, is almost as old as civilization.
Many early societies punished those who would harm
the name or reputation of another. Decimation before
the invention of printing almost always took the form of
slander. An early code of Egyptian law recognized
slander as an offense against the sun god.
After the invention of printing, libel became very
closely related to freedom of the press. Through history,
governments have taken various and often harsh views
of a free press. For centuries, the struggle for some
measure of press freedom was an uphill battle. Much of
the trouble encountered in striving for press freedom
revolved around the fact that for a long time
governments considered any adverse criticism or
comment to be libelous. Thus rulers went as far as to
imprison or put to death writers who had criticized them
in print. Even today, in some countries, too much of the
wrong kind of criticism can mean a newspaper will be
A balance between ruthless suppression and license
was struck by the U.S. Constitution, and the courts have
strengthened this balance in the intervening years.
Today, as one writer says, freedom of the press and
speech is the first principle of the Anglo-American
legal structure. He goes on to say these freedoms are a
specific legal principle defining the relationship, in a
democracy, between the people and their elected
Libel laws exist because the free press is a two-way
street There are obligations that accompany the rights
of freedom of speech and press. The managers of a
respectable news medium obey the libel laws not merely
because they wish to avoid being sued but because they
believe in the dignity of the individual.
HOW LIBEL IS COMMITTED
If news media commit libel today, it generally
occurs in one or more of the following areas:
Attacking a persons character or personal
Accusing someone of a loathsome disease or
Accusing someone of a crime
Attacking a persons professional competence
Subjecting a person, in any way, to public
contempt, hatred or ridicule
Instances of libel are more common than most
people suspect, and court action does not have to result
before a statement becomes libelous. There are
hundreds of instances of libel everyday in the United
States news media. The vast majority of them are minor
or borderline cases, and most of the more serious ones
go unnoticed or uncontested. There are relatively few
court actions for libel.
RESPONSIBILITY FOR LIBEL
Lets assume that you write a story and accidentally
include a statement that offends somebdy. The person
offended sues for libel. Who is responsible? Who pays?
A casual observer might think that in a suit against a
large newspaper, any damages will be paid by the
medium publishing the story. This is not necessarily so.
Technically, everybody who had anything to do with
the statement may be sued. This includes you, the PAO
who released it, the officer in command who is
responsible for everything you release, the editor who
accepted it, the editor who approved it and anybody else
in the chain of events who read it, understood it, yet
allowed the statement to reach print.
Another point worth emphasizing is that any person
who reprints a libelous statement can be held as being
just as guilty as the person who originally published it.
For example, assume that one newspaper publishes a
libelous statement. Another newspaper picks up the
story, credits the first newspaper with the facts and
republishes it. The second newspaper may be just as
guilty as the first, if the case reaches court and libel is
proved. In some states, charges maybe brought against