What is libel?

Defamation of character issued via print.

What’s a helpful mnemonic for remembering the difference between libel and slander?

Letters are Libel, but Speeches are Slander.

That is helpful, thank you.

I aim to please.

Why is libel illegal? Doesn’t the First Amendment give you the right to say anything you want?

It does not say that at all. It says that government may make no law abridging the freedom of speech. Neither the American system of law, nor any other culture that has ever existed, has allowed citizens the right to say anything they want. Some speech has been, is, and always will be illegal.

Such as?

Depends on if you’re talking or writing. Inciting a riot, phoning in a bomb threat, slander: these are the spoken no-no’s. Threatening to kill someone you could do out loud or on paper, so that one counts in both categories. Typographically, libel is pretty much it.

Great. What ever happened to freedom?

What? As far as freedom of speech goes, the United States is way ahead of most of the world. We’re fetishistic about it, even to the point where it actively harms society at times. The courts let Nazis march in Skokie.

I hate Illinois Nazis.

Worst kind. But as weird as freedom of speech can get at times, it’s better than whatever the fuck’s going on in Europe. You get arrested for making Hitler jokes over there.

You get fired for making them here.

And that’s fine. Private organizations can refuse to do business with people they deem deleterious to their bottom line. Government shouldn’t be able to come after you for your speech, even if it’s repellent.

So why is libel against the law?

Because there’s a difference between speech that is repellent and speech that is intended to cause harm. Libel isn’t just “writing something mean about a person.” There’s a list of requirements that have to be checked off before a statement qualifies as libelous.

Such as?

Well, first it has to be a lie. Can’t be libel if it’s true.

Sounds reasonable.

Second, you have to prove the plaintiff was making a factual statement, and not rendering an opinion.

I don’t understand.

“The parson is a heroin addict” can be libelous, if it’s not true. “The parson acts like he’s addicted to heroin” cannot be libel, even if it’s false and you intended harm by the statement.

This is complicated.

So very. Plus, if the parson is a public figure, the difficulty level is raised. Let’s say the parson becomes the Bishop of El Paso. You write about the Bishop’s heroin addiction in the newspaper. As a public figure, he would have to prove that not only was the statement false, but also that you knew the statement was false.

It sounds like getting a libel conviction is tough.

We’re not done. Also covered is parody and satire. Which means you can lie about someone, know that what you were writing was a lie, but if a reasonable person could understand it as a joke, you can’t be found liable for libel.

But that’s it, right?

Oh, no. There are way more defenses. My favorite is that some people are un-libel-able. Their reputations are so shitty that you can basically say or print whatever you’d like about them, because their character was already so impugned that nothing could possibly lower it.

I can’t think of anyone that would fit into that category.

No, not a single living soul.

Why are we talking about libel?

Because the King of Mount Bullshit wants to change the libel laws because the press is being mean to him.

Can he do that?

No.

Can you explain further?

Noooooooo.

Really?

He just fucking can’t. First of all, there are no federal libel laws; they’re all at the state level. Second, the Constitution–archaic as it may be–is rather clear about freedom of speech, so any mucking around with it would require a Constitutional amendment and this bunch of half-bright assholes can’t even get a bill through a Congress they control. The President of the United States has a vast array of powers, but this ain’t one of them.

Does he know that?

No. The president doesn’t know how our government works.

Careful, he might accuse you of libel.

The truth is an absolute defense.