Anyone well versed in the law and its application has no reason to fear libel. What on the surface may appear to be awesome really isn’t. But understanding the basic premises of libel is absolutely necessary for journalists.
Libel is defamation expressed in oral, written, printed or any other audible or visual form.
What specifically constitutes defamation is difficult, if not impractical, to define accurately and comprehensively define. Journalists must understand the conditions and circumstances under which libel occurs so that
1. They may guard against the publication or broadcast of indefensible defamatory matter, and
2. In the event a libel suit is brought, to provide their employers and themselves with defense.
The doctrines of freedom of speech and of the press do not give individuals or the news media carte blanche to say or write anything. Another basic concept often misunderstood by beginning journalists is this: journalists and the news media they represent are responsible for what they do. You can’t blame it on someone quoted in a report or on sources.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution says, in part, “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech or of the press.” And the Texas Constitution says, “Every citizen shall be at liberty to speak, write or publish his opinions on any subject . . .”
As a practical matter, anyone may speak, write, draw or otherwise illustrate or exhibit whatever he or she desires. They have the freedom to do that.
But, each person is responsible for his or her actions. And when the exercise of freedom infringes on the freedom of another, something has to give. The concept of libel exists to protect individuals from one kind of infringement.
With freedom comes responsibility, and nowhere is that more true than in the area of the news media taking responsibility for what they do. Because they are free, the media has a responsibility not to abuse that freedom. And anyone who exercises freedom has a similar responsibility.
Freedom of speech and of the press exists to defend the free and open discussion of ideas and opinions. Intentional or careless misstatement of fact is not necessarily protected by Constitutional guarantees or by law.
The law of libel originated in the common law or in what is sometimes referred to as case law. Common law or case law derives its authority from usage and custom and from judgments and decrees of courts. Disputes involving libel have traditionally been resolved in court with previous decisions serving as precedents.
When no specific precedents existed, cases broke new grounds and established precedents. These precedents became the basis of libel law in this country.
In most states the legislatures have enacted statutory laws, which are mainly procedural. In Texas the statutes define libel and define privileged publication. This is especially helpful in understanding what can be reported fairly and without fear of suit.
Because of the supremacy clause found in Article VI of the United States Constitution, decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court supersede the statutory laws of any state and any previous precedents.
Since neither case nor statutory law can cover every possibility, most interesting libel cases are concerned with new issues not directly covered in cases or statutes. Libel on the Internet is an example of how technology may affect laws and rules.
For example, suppose a suit is brought in Texas by a plaintiff who believes he or she was injured by a published statement. But no specific precedent exists for his suit. The case may or may not proceed to trial, depending on what the judge in whose court the case was assigned thinks. After trial the decisions might be appealed. Eventually the case is decided. That decision provides the law that will govern future cases on similar matters.
Many approaches are used in discussing the theory of libel. They are helpful in that they establish an attitude toward the concept. For example, one way to look at libel is to divide it into
1.Libel per se, which includes statements that are defamatory on their face, and
2.Libel per quod, which includes statements that are defamatory when extrinsic facts are added.
What constitutes either is case law (previous court rulings) or statutory law.
For example, such circumstances as calling a doctor “a quack,” a lawyer “a shyster” or a woman “a whore” are statements that would be libelous per se. Courts have decided in case after case that such words are defamatory and libelous. Having a good idea of which words are defamatory can be most helpful in avoiding using defamatory words.
Reporting that a woman was declared ineligible for a beauty contest because she was married might be libel per quod if one of the conditions for entering the contest was that women be unmarried. The reporting of such a fact would indicate, by inference, fraud or deceit by the woman.
Libel is a tort—an allegation of injury for which a civil action may be brought. The redress for the contention that libel has occurred is in civil courts.
The procedure involved from the filing of the suit alleging defamation and injury until the conclusion of the case is the libel action.