By Lisa Black
After a mild argument with my husband about the difference between free speech and libel/slander, I got curious about when actual laws prohibiting either hit the books.
Both crimes come under the heading of defamation, which simply means to express something to a third party that damages the plaintiff‘s reputation. Actual law dates back at least to the Romans and their Praetorian Edict—the general body of law decreed by whoever might be the ruler and finally hardened into something more permanent by Hadrian in 129 AD. That law declared it a crime to ‘shout’ —publicly—something about a specific person that was contrary to public morals, and/or to encourage others to do the same. Whether or not the thing was true might, or might not, be relevant.
The U.S. broke with that tradition in 1805 and generally holds that it’s not libel if it’s true. Also, some statements (‘he has leprosy’ ‘she’s a slut’) are sufficiently defamatory that victims do not have to show any actual damage to their reputation or income. Statements that are so outlandish that they were clearly not meant to be believed (‘Lisa is from Mars’) are not libel.
But as before, it generally must affect a specific individual. A critic can write ‘this is the worst play I’ve ever seen.’ But if he writes, ‘the lead actress Sophie Green was convicted of armed robbery last year,’ he’s toast, unless Sophie decides there’s no such thing as bad publicity. Or if she really did knock over that liquor store.
Much of defamation law has dealt with criticism of governments and politicians, so, depending on how oppressive the government wants to be (I’m looking at you, British Parliament circa 1275). But that’s not as interesting as the cases of common citizens, so I examined a few of those:
The infamous Cherry Sisters (whom I recall from an episode of Drunk History…I really miss Drunk History) sued the Des Moines Leader in 1901 for pointing out that they were the worst vaudevillian act ever to cross a stage. They lost, as the judge in turn pointed out that a newspaper had the obligation to tell their readers the truth.
Two years later, early rogue woman Annie Oakley sued Randolph Hearst’s papers for reporting that she had been arrested for stealing a Black man’s pants just to pay for cocaine, when actually the arrestee in the case had simply signed her name as Annie Oakley and the paper didn’t bother with something as dull as actual research. All fifty-five libels suits were decided in her favor, but she didn’t win enough to make it worth it. I don’t know if Hearst had anything against Oakley personally, or just wanted to sell papers.
Charles Post of Post cereal company wanted customers to think the world of Grape Nuts. But when he claimed the cereal alone would “obviate the necessity of an operation for appendicitis,” Collier’s had had enough. Publisher Peter Collier called this out as not only a lie, but a potentially deadly one. Charles Post did his best to intimidate the man, and then claimed Peter had offered to trade his silence for a bribe. So in 1907, Collier sued Post for libel and won. This case helped prompt the regulation of advertising.
Those regulations only go so far, as Richard Overton discovered in 1993 when he sued Anheuser-Busch. Despite what he saw on the commercials, when he drank Bud Lite he didn’t end up cavorting with gorgeous women on a beach somewhere. Busch had lied, and owed him $10,000 for physical and emotional distress. The Michigan court did not agree.
This is why we writers resist the temptation to give our philandering, embezzling, murderous villain the same name as our ex-boss.
Readers, what’s the most outrageous claim you’ve ever seen in print?