Defamation and Libel Primer

In November of 2017, I published a piece titled “Defamation and Libel and Smears, oh my! In it, the meanings of defamation and libel were clearly covered. However, one of my readers asked me to re-clarify for him the differences in relation to another article, so here is the simpler primer.

In the Province of Ontario and across most of the civilized literate world, if you say something about someone that is true, it is NOT defamation. If you say something about someone that is false, but does not damage their character or reputation, it is NOT defamation.

The main difference between defamation and libel is that the former is in speech and the latter is in print. Print it in a newspaper or magazine or blog, and it’s libel.

So for example, if you write in a blog that a certain journalist does not have professional credentials and smear his reputation, and it turns out that the accusation is not true and you were using misinformation, that is libel. If you say those same false things in public or private, that is defamation. Now, if when discovering your error, you withdraw the offending accusation, and make a full and sincere apology for your error in print, you’re a decent human being. If not, there’s a rock waiting for you to crawl back under.

In a recent blog, I commented that a colleague of mine, a well-respected local reporter and editor, had written an insightful commentary about gun violence and bullying. In that editorial he asked for answers, to which I responded last week with an article titled “An Easy Answer for Bill.” Bill also published my shorter Letter to the Editor response in his paper last week.

In his original article, Bill confessed to having been part of a group in school that had bullied other students. One day one of the targets of his taunts threatened to kill Bill. The situation was resolved without violence, but being a man of good conscience, it made Bill reflect on, as he put it so eloquently, “trying to navigate through adolescence while crashing into people trying to do the same.”

When I concluded my editorial on how differently that could have ended in a high school in Florida, I commented, “Just be grateful, Bill, that the boy you bullied in school didn’t carry an AR-15.”

Now, for my challenged reader, although this gave a fine opportunity to clarify the difference between defamation and libel (and compliment Bill on his eloquence) there is nothing even remotely associated with either defamation or libel in my editorial. Learning to read and comprehend is such a valuable skill.  These editorials are written for graduate level readers. According to the good old Flesch-Kincaid analyzer, the Star and Globe & Mail and National Post all come in at upper high school levels. On the other hand, the Sun is at a Middle School level and may be easier to understand for some – it uses a lot of pictures.

In summary, it is defamation if spoken, libel if printed, and neither if the words are true.

And, dear reader, I’m still waiting for that full and sincere apology.

***

Skid Crease, Caledon,

Member in good standing with the Canadian Association of Journalists

* image from azblackpeek.com

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