Legal Issues Workshop: Libel and Invasion of Privacy

By Ryan Belmore | Oct. 24, 2018

Panelists L to R: Natalie Spears and George Freeman — Ryan Belmore for LION

How can you reduce your risk of being sued for defamation and invasion of privacy while still engaging in robust reporting?

That was the question discussed during Legal Issues Workshop: Libel and Invasion of Privacy at the 2018 LION Summit, one of three legal issues workshops hosted on the first day of the event.

In this workshop, Jeffrey Hermes and George Freeman from the Media Law Resource Center were joined by Natalie Spears of Dentons US LLP. They talked about "where journalists and lawyers often meet for the first time, a case involving defamation - libel or slander," Freeman told the more than 20 LION publishers in the room.

Libel is a published false statement of fact that is damaging to a person's reputation. It's important to differentiate when things are published as opinions or as facts.

In a libel case, a plaintiff would have to prove that a false statement of fact was published and that it made at least one person think less of them as a result.

While publishers are held responsible for statement of facts they publish, they are also responsible for the quotes that they include in stories. Those quotes that journalists include in stories are content, and journalists and publications can be sued if they are published as a false statement of fact. It is of utmost importance that journalists, editors, and publishers verify the truthfulness and accuracy of all quotes published.

Publishers are protected from libel cases if information or quotes published come from an official government meeting or document.

Section 230 of the U.S. Communications Decency Act protects online publishers being sued for libel by any comments on stories by third-party users. There are exceptions, an important one being that you are responsible for the comments posted by your employees, contributors, and anyone who is linked to employment with your business on your site at all times.

The panel of law experts also warned of using anonymous sources, the cause of many libel cases. Before identifying a source as anonymous, make sure that doing so is truly important and worth the risk. Are you prepared to stand in front of a jury and defend your statement of facts from your source?

The effect of corrections, denials, implications of fact, and using anonymous sources is particularly important and all publishers should have some kind of standard that everyone follows.

Once a false statement of fact is published, a correction or retraction does not always matter. It will not hold up in court. But, corrections and retractions are helpful to run because it is good to show your readers that you recognize when things are in error and some juries may see that there was less damage done in the case of defamation.

Possible defenses under the First Amendment and common law when it comes to libel include the following:

  1. The information came from a fair and accurate official meeting
  2. It was an opinion, there's no such thing as a "false opinion"
  3. Death libel
  4. Substantial truth
  5. Neutral reporting

When it comes to defamation in regards to a public figure, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the published fact was false and was made with actual malice or negligence.

Finally, publishers should be cautious when it comes to the invasion of privacy and publication of private facts. If what you are publishing could be highly offensive to a reasonable person or is a private fact, it should not be published without consent.

The panel concluded by reminding their audience that people can withdraw consent of any private fact that was previously granted to them.

As far as additional resources, Hermes recommended the Reporters Committee for Freedom of The Press and Digital Media Law Project.

Check out more entries in our 2018 conference blog »