Friday, October 10, 2008

U.S. v. U.K. libel laws

The United States' libel laws provide more protection for publishers than United Kingdom laws. Libel laws were originally considered the domain of press owners. Now, anyone has access to worldwide distribution of their words and images through the Web. Therefore, everyone is "the press" and subject to libel law.

In the U.K., a story only needs to be published, defamatory and directly, or through innuendo, name an individual for the plaintiff to win - even if the facts are provably true.

In the U.S., nobody can win a libel lawsuit if the published information is true. Even if the facts aren't true, public figures must still prove negligence to the jury.

In 1735, (New York) Attorney General v. John Peter Zenger established truth as a defense in (Colonial) libel cases. I'd say Andrew Hamilton's closing argument rocks, but it's closer to Bach (Abel to be more accurate).

While Zenger got off the hook, the decision didn't affect common law applications of libel in America or England. These cases remained in state courts until a Civil Rights movement case worked its way to the Supreme Court.

In 1964, New York Times v. Sullivan determined public figures, those who "invite attention and comment," must establish actual malice with "reckless disregard for the truth" to win a libel claim. This was strengthened by Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. in 1974. The Gertz case established fault (negligence) is also required in cases of public concern.

Other journalistic protections in the U.S. include privilege during governmental proceedings or in government records as well as fair comment, which is an "opinion" rather than a provable fact. The fair comment protection has limitations, so it isn't a universal shield - nor should it be.

Soon, we'll discuss the concept of public figures as it applies to stock photography. Politicians, celebrities and professional athletes are legally "safe" subjects for stock photographers. Consequently, these are the only images some stock companies make available for publication. This policy has created a corrosive influence in news and public discourse.

Enough for now,

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