“Libel and slander are legal claims for false statements of fact about a person that are printed, broadcast, spoken or otherwise communicated to others. Libel generally refers to statements or visual depictions in written or other permanent form, while slander refers to verbal statements and gestures. The term defamation is often used to encompass both libel and slander.”
—Media Law Resource Center
No honest lawyer would deny that a whole lot of lying goes on in court—though there are more than a few veterans of legal process who would deny there’s such a thing as an honest lawyer.
Either way, same point: a whole lot of lying.
A purpose of the First Amendment is to protect the citizen’s right to register disapproval of anyone or anything, for example, rampant lying in court or lying by someone to the court. If a plaintiff lies in court and prevails because of it, a defendant may have no means to reverse the court’s opinion after the fact. The plaintiff will, for legal purposes, have gotten away with it.
That doesn’t, of course, mean s/he didn’t lie.
It also doesn’t mean the defendant is prohibited from bringing the truth to light in the court of public opinion. What transpires in a courtroom is public property, and the right of a witness to talk about that (and his or her life) is sacrosanct. There’s an obvious public interest, besides, in knowing lying occurs in court, which makes speech about lying in court political, and political speech is what the First Amendment is preeminently there to safeguard.
Journalism is the true court of last resort, and bloggers enjoy the same privileges as the institutional press. A trial judge may not recognize that, but the law does.
The purpose of a plaintiff’s lying to the court to procure an injunction (a “restraining order”) is always to shut the defendant up (possibly to conceal unethical or unlawful acts s/he has committed). The same plaintiff who thought it was perfectly fine to lie up and down about the defendant under oath will be livid if s/he’s then called a liar in a public medium that could be read by friends, family, and coworkers. Bottling the truth to maintain appearances was the point of misleading the court in the first place.
The plaintiff’s immediate turn-to recourse will be to claim the defendant violated the injunction by writing about him or her. This is invalidated by the First Amendment, but a trial judge may not know that (talking or writing to someone may be properly prohibited by the court; not so talking or writing about someone, which is protected speech). Additional to alleging harassment, a plaintiff will likely claim s/he has been “defamed.”
Defamation is a word that’s applied casually to any negative speech about a person. (HERE, for instance, is a lawyer named Rocchio complaining that he was defamed by being called “Roach” and an “ambulance chaser.”) As the epigraph shows, the significance of the word in the law is very narrow, however: to qualify as defamatory, speech must be false. Speech that’s merely critical, offensive, upsetting, or coercive (i.e., meant to urge someone to change his or her ways) is protected by the First Amendment.
To ground this discussion, let’s say a man cheats on his wife, and let’s say the unknowing mistress finds out and threatens to tell her lover’s wife—and his friends, his boss, etc.—unless he apologizes and comes clean. The man gets a restraining order to silence the woman, maybe alleging harassment or stalking…or threats against his bunny rabbit. (He can make up anything he wants—and if there are a few angry emails or texts, easy-peasy.)
This disarms the woman (who is the actual wronged party), robs her of credibility—“She’s just some crazy person who’s obsessed with me; I had to get a restraining order”—and besides humiliates and terrifies her: She is instantly the bad guy.
Now what if instead of contacting the man’s wife (boss, friends, etc.), the deceived woman subsequently writes about the ordeal in a blog? Contrary to what most may think, including lawyers and judges, this is protected one-to-many speech—like orating on a campus quad or in the town square, or wearing a sandwich board and marching up and down the sidewalk. Willing listeners can attend; everyone else can turn away.
Negative speech about a person usually will qualify, by the dictionary definition of the word, as defamatory. Certainly if I call someone a “scumbag,” it’s not likely to enhance his or her image and popularity. Is calling someone a name actionable? No.
So speech can defame and still be defensible. Liability for defamation requires that unwanted speech be false.
If I think someone’s a scumbag, that’s not false speech; it’s my opinion. So it isn’t defamatory according to the law…even if a judge might believe otherwise.
Let’s help him or her out: Is pronouncing that someone is a criminal defamatory? Hell, yes. But judges do it all the time. Defaming people is their business. Generally speaking, judges’ defamatory speech is the most harmful kind.
The distinction is, if someone is sentenced for the commission of a criminal act, s/he is ipso facto a “convicted criminal” (and maybe even a “felon”). Saying so is defamatory, but it isn’t “defamation” by the standard recognized by the law. It isn’t false.
Similarly, if someone committed a crime (like perjury) and wasn’t caught, that doesn’t mean s/he didn’t lie under oath. (Parenthetically, there is no one who has never told a lie so just calling someone a liar can never be defamatory by the legal standard.)
In a courtroom, a person’s allowed to make any defamatory allegation against someone else, whether true or not. Judges (and everybody else) get hung up on the question of what you can say outside of one. It’s as if they imagine what happens in court isn’t public or “doesn’t count.”
An irony lost on judges is that lies uttered with impunity in court procedures can carry grave and permanent consequences. A judge will just stonily sit there and listen.
“Objectionable” opinions and truths spoken outside of court may well arouse a judge’s ire, though. This is a prejudice, and it’s more than a little backwards.
Critical speech cannot help but defame. That doesn’t mean it’s unjust, and it doesn’t mean it’s punishable.
We don’t say the truth hurts for nothing.
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