On The Dilemma Of Libel Protections

One of the notable aspects of free speech in the United States is that it is nearly impossible for a public figure [1] to win a case for libel or defamation of character because such people are assumed to be beyond the need of such mundane protections. As someone who likes to express personal opinions, this is something I greatly appreciate. Having been threatened with libel suits in the long course of my writing, it is obvious that it would be very difficult for me to write even in the restrained manner I do regarding issues of legitimacy in institutions and nations in a nation whose libel protections were less generous than the United States’. And the same is true for a gret many others as well. In Irish Brehon law, for example, satire was criminal because of its tendency to reduce the respect and honor authorities were held in by the general public, and for a lord even to tolerate satire by others within his domain was a means by which he could lose his own honor price and status within the community of Irish rulers. This is not even for engaging in satire, but merely for tolerating it by others.

In light of the lack of tolerance for satirical and critical views of authorities in many areas, it is little surprise that Great Britain and other countries should have immensely tough libel laws that basically force those accused of libel to prove their innocence. This is surprisingly hard to do. Those of us who write and who believe ourselves to be in the right may nonetheless find it hard to prove our innocence, as saying anything negative that one cannot prove may lead one subject to massive damages, and this has a chilling effect on critical and negative communication. It may be argued that this is a good thing, and that negative and critical communication should be chilled, and that there should be a legal regime that heavily punishes any sort of communication that puts an authority in a negative light. It hardly takes a radical position to believe that some authorities deserve to be painted in a negative light in general or that even authorities we may generally favor deserve to be held accountable for things that they have said and done.

All of this presents us with dilemmas. We all want to be loved and treated with respect, and the state of communication and opinion writing in the United States is in a dire state when it comes to contempt and hostility. It is impossible to be a public figure in any limited capacity without subjecting oneself to immensely harsh public abuse from people who have no filter whatsoever in the wicked and loathsome things that they will say about you. And yet it is simultaneously true that the freedom to speak as one wishes, even if one tends to be a restrained person in one’s communication, requires a great deal of tolerance of speech that we might rather not hear directed at us. In order to avoid being a hypocrite, seeking the freedom to speak what we think and feel and believe requires that we put up with the freedom that others use to speak what they think and feel and believe, no matter how offensive that is to us. The reason why this is necessary is because the limitation of such freedoms on others endangers those of us who have very unpopular thoughts, feelings, opinions, and beliefs, as I know is the case regarding myself and many others I know who take no pleasure in throwing mud or worse things at others.

Of course, being a Christian requires an even higher standard of communication. The Apostle Paul minces no words when he talks about the things that we should think and reflect on in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” A great deal of what we are free to say in the United States are not true, noble, just, pure, lovely, or good report or virtue or praiseworthiness. By these standards much of our spoken and written and nonverbal communication falls woefully short of the standard we are held to as believers. Paul, again, in Ephesians 4:29 gives those of us who are believers a very high standard to maintain in our communication: “Let no corrupt word proceed out of your mouth, but what is good for necessary edification, that it may impart grace to the hearers.” Anything that is not necessary for building up others or to impart grace to the hearers is communication that should not proceed from the mouth, pen, or keyboard of believers. This is a standard we all struggle with, and those of us who are prolific communicators most of all.

And yet no matter how restrained we are in our own communication, we must admit that simply making the world aware of what we think and believe and feel will bring a great deal of harsh invective our way. To the extent, for example, that we call on others to repent, we can expect that others will not want to be called to repent or want to admit that they are thinking or saying or doing anything wrong at all. The tendency to justify ourselves is a nearly universal human habit. The absence of self-justification can often be reasonably seen as a sign of being in a grip of the darkness of depression and despair, so critical is the tendency to justify ourselves as an aspect of our psychological defenses. And while the Bible is plain that we should not be perveyors of gossip or filth in communication, the Bible is also clear that one of the aspects of being righteous is being able to take the righteous strikes of others as a means of prompting us to reflection and repentance for sins and faults that we are blind to, as David writes in Psalm 141:3-5: “Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips. Do not incline my heart to any evil thing, to practice wicked works with men who work iniquity; and do not let me eat of their delicacies. Let the righteous strike me;
It shall be a kindness. and let him rebuke me; it shall be as excellent oil; let my head not refuse it. For still my prayer is against the deeds of the wicked.” Amen.

[1] It should be noted that being a public figure is an extremely easy thing to do, per Merriam Webster: “a person who voluntarily and prominently participates in a public controversy for the purpose of influencing its outcome and who is thus required as a public figure to prove actual malice in a defamation suit.” Any time you participate vocally in a social media struggle over some matter of institutional politics of personal interest in order to influence its outcome, you forfeit your protection to generous libel standards, meaning that few people who are active and public about their opinions, no matter how little fame they have, are likely to be considered as public figures, including yours truly.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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