Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Fri, 14 Oct 1994 21:53:32 CDT

I'm not a lawyer, but I think I understand the basics. First, this is
America, and anyone can sue anyone for anything. Their case may get thrown
out as frivolous, but that doesn't prevent people from suing. Slander and
libel have to do with saying something about person X that is (a) harmful to
X and particularly to X's public reputation, (b) claiming or strongly implying
that one's statement about X is a FACT, when (c) the statement is demonstrably
FALSE or when one's claim cannot be shown to be factual. This is different
from stating one's opinion, for you can't get sued for stating an opinion.
You also cannot be sued for stating a suspicion.

So, if I say that Hugh Jarvis is a jerk, this is not actionable given that
jerk is slang for an opinion. If I say that Hugh Jarvis is a philandering
jerk, then I am liable for libel unless I can prove that Hugh is a philanderer.
If Hugh can show that my claim damaged his professional reputation, then he
can sue for damages. If I say that in my opinion, Hugh Jarvis is a
philandering jerk, he won't get far in a suit. The same with suspicion. So
if you want to avoid committing libel, then make sure that you flag your
claims as something other than those of fact. If you're not sure that your
claim is factual, then common sense would tell you not to make the claim at
all or to be clear about not claiming it as factual. But if you have to do
that, then you're vulnerable to a counterclaim of spreading gossip. When you
begin to think about the implications of the sorts of assertions we make, some
casually, some in the heat of argument, we're all pretty vulnerable.

One can go on with this, I suppose, but the central issue is clear. Most of
us tend to dash off a note, particularly when we're exercised about something,
without thinking much about the implications of what we're saying and how we're
saying it. We kind of assume that whatever we say will be okay, and mostly
that is true. Aaron Fox had some mean things to say about John McCreery a
while back, for example, and the responses he got were calm, measured
remonstrating. John's gentle but firm response was in such stark contrast
to Aaron's ill-considered outburst that it was far more devastating than
righteous indignation or sarcasm could ever have been. Aaron indeed responded
like a mensch. But there are limits to anyone's tolerance, and at least some
of those limits are legal. I could think of worse things on this Net than
having to think about what I say and how I say it before pressing the "send"
Mike Lieber