“There ought to be a law” – a common refrain back in the day when laws were given respect. Nowadays, when it comes to being defamed on the internet, being trashed unfairly by someone with an axe to grind, maybe a new law could help with the people and businesses who are targeted. Let’s discuss internet defamation, and what would be an effective statutory remedy for it.
Just what is defamation? It is a false statement of fact — not opinion — that hurts someone’s reputation, published willfully or negligently. There are two kinds of defamation – libel, which is written defamation, and slander, which is spoken. There is one absolute defense to a claim of defamation: truth. A charge of defamation fails if the statement alleged to be defamatory is shown to be true.
We all know that there has come to be an astonishing level of what we can call internet abuse. Sadly the product of a declining culture worldwide, the Internet has grown, among other things, to be a venue for gratuitous, nasty, mean-spirited venom, be it in social media, blogs, chat rooms, website comments, etc. Sometimes it comes in the form of cyber-bullying, and often in the form of libel. Businesses are often the target of this feeding frenzy from disgruntled customers who turn a complaint into a sensational lie, posting it where it can linger for years.
In this rising craze of personal internet attacks, business owners are as vulnerable as anyone, even more so in some respects on the internet. Where an angry web post targets a business, it fits the definition of libel when written to injure the business or trade in such a way as to suggest an untruthful disqualification to be in that business, or some other false shortcoming that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits.
And here’s where “there oughtta be a law” comes in. Maybe where a business or individual is the victim of libel on the internet, the defamer who posts such defamation would be held more responsible, and the victim would be more encouraged by the chance for meaningful relief. It would give a true remedy against internet abuse. Businesses in particular deserve a chance to rebound. They are an integral part of our community.
So where the complainant proves defamation, a new law should be passed that will provide that every losing internet defamer must post a retraction in the same venue of social media everywhere the libel originally appeared, for a prolonged timeframe, stating clearly that they were retracting the statement relating to the named target and that a court found the statement to be libelous. And the original statement would be forever deleted.
Under this proposal, the retraction would admit that the statement was false and defamatory. Further, this retraction would include the name the writer used in the original posting, and the writer’s real name. Finally, the law proposed here would require the defaming defendant to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees and court costs, and the retraction would explain this detail as well.
This would solve some of the widely unsettled law with the internet. And it would not disturb the existing, and increasingly necessary rule to hold notorious land developers to be “public figures,” giving them an extra tough burden to prove their case as they try to gag public comment against their projects with usually baseless defamation lawsuits.
Finally, this proposed law would preserve the right of those who post internet libel to have their day in court, where the complainant has to bring a court action by properly suing for defamation. That’s due process.
Going forward, the burden would continue to be the victim’s to prove that he or she or a trade or business has been defamed. With a law such as this, the victim has the chance to gain justice by taking action. And when a character assassin has it in his mind to indulge in some internet abuse in the form of libel, he may think twice about the prospects of a real consequence, even if he uses a bogus identification. But the real solution to internet abuse is for so many to remember the golden rule, and be ever conscious that words, be they spoken or written, have power, including hateful power that demeans all of us, and sets a terrible example.
Greg Blass has spent his life in public service since he enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a teenager. He has worked in the private sector as an attorney and served six terms representing the East End in the Suffolk County Legislature, where he was also presiding officer. Greg has worked as an adjunct professor at Suffolk County Community College, as Greenport village attorney, as N.Y. State family court judge and as Suffolk County social services commissioner. Now retired, Greg is active in volunteer work and is a member of the board of directors of several charities. A resident of Jamesport, he and his wife Barbara have two grown children.
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