Am I Allowed To Say This?
Law is the means by which the simplest ideas are expressed in the most complex language.
Civil law is the means by which private arguments are rapidly made public at great expense.
Right! That's the whimsy out of the way. What follows is my attempt to throw down some ideas for open discussion of the following proposition:
The world's nations should get together and formulate an international treaty on libel law.
Freedom of speech
Freedom of speech is the highest degree of freedom known to mankind. If you can suppress freedom of speech, you can suppress any human behaviour.
If I were to publish a bare-faced lie here at scientificblogging.com would that be me exercising my right to freedom of speech?
Under what circumstances, if any, should a person be subjected to legal scrutiny for telling a lie?
I suggest that subjecting published words to public scrutiny in the courts can only be permitted if there is at least some aspect of perjury involved.
Perjury as a more general legal concept
I suggest that the law on libel can be improved if we adopt a definition of libellous perjury. But first, I suggest that we look to broaden the legal concept of perjury.
Perjury is a deliberate lie told in a formal legal setting. The reason for telling a lie in such a setting is plain to see: it is an attempt to influence a decision-making process. The concept of perjury has long since been extended beyond the courts and into arenas such as government. A lie told to a congressional or parliamentary inquiry is perjury.
Could we, or should we, extend that application? I suggest that anyone who attempts to influence the democratic process by direct communication of a lie to a member of a governing body should be subject to the laws against perjury.
For example, let us take the case of a person who writes a letter to a US Senator for the purpose of influencing US government policy. The letter writer, in order to boost the appearance of speaking with authority, claims membership of a particular group. The claim is false. Should that situation be covered by the laws of perjury? Does it make any difference whether the letter is private, or if it is published on the internet?
I suggest that there should be more to libel than mere name-calling. Personal opinions need to be protected from zealots. However, personal reputations need protection from bare-faced liars. There is a very fine line to be drawn. If an American, having perhaps imbibed an excess of gilly_juice on July 4th, states in a blog that all Englishmen are scheming scum, should I sue? Of course not! A general and sweeping statement is, I suggest, by the very nature of its breadth, not an attack on a specific person or narrowly defined group.
Proof of libel should, I suggest, be a proof in parts, the sufficient and necessary components being:
1 - publication of a false statement where any reasonable person would know or believe it to be untrue;
2 - publication of a false statement where any reasonable person would
conclude that the purpose of publication was to damage the reputation
of a person or group or;
3 - publication of a false statement where any reasonable person would
conclude that the purpose of publication was an attempt to make an author's published material appear to be false or;
4 - publication of a false statement where any reasonable person would
conclude that the purpose of publication was a deliberate attempt to influence the policy deliberations of a democratically elected legislature.
Libel in the news
Here are a few links to recent articles concerning libel, in no particular order. They show, I suggest, that there is a need for international agreements on libel laws and jurisdictions.
Am I Allowed To Say This?
By Patrick Lockerby | July 1st 2010 07:25 AM | Print | E-mail