Friday, April 6, 2012

Journalism & The Law.

Several people have warned me that I will be sued for defamation by the character I outed on Wednesday who dresses like a cop, rides a cop-like motorcycle and displays official police business placards as though he was an actual police officer.

Relax, folks. Here is why a defamation lawsuit, which would actually be a libel case, would not hold up in court:

First of all, journalists and all people are protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, which allows for the freedom of the press, among other valuable rights.

The First Amendment, however, is not a license to spout out anything. People being portrayed in the media have rights as well.

A person claiming to be defamed in print could sue for libel. According to the Pennsylvania Newspaper Association's Handbook: Libel occurs when a false and defamatory statement is published which tends to harm a person's reputation or expose him or her to public hatred, contempt or ridicule.

Pennsylvania law (42 Pa. C.S.A. § 8343) says that the plaintiff in a libel case has the burden of proving the following:

1. The defamatory character of the communication (including printed statements).
2. Its publication by the defendant.
3. Its application to the plaintiff.
4. The understanding by the recipient (such as a reader) of its defamatory meaning.
5. The understanding by the recipient of it as intended to be applied to the plaintiff.
6. Special harm resulting to the plaintiff because of its publication (such as impairment of reputation and standing in community, personal humiliation, mental anguish and suffering, and any other injury of which libel is legal cause).
7. Abuse of a conditionally privileged occasion (for example, if a newspaper publishes an article that creates the impression that the plaintiff's actions were worse than what a complaint about the plaintiff implies, Pennsylvania's "fair report" privilege will be forfeited).

The judicial procedure continues:

In an action for defamation, the defendant has the burden of proving, when the issue is properly raised:

1. The truth of the defamatory communication.
2. The privileged character of the occasion on which it was published.
3. The character of the subject matter of defamatory comment as of public concern.

The procedure concludes:

In all civil actions for libel, no damages shall be recovered unless it is established to the satisfaction of the jury, under the direction of the court as in other cases, that the publication has been maliciously or negligently made, but where malice or negligence appears such damages may be awarded as the jury shall deem proper.

Simply put, the truth is the ultimate defense in a libel case.

So, was my blog post the truth? Yes.

It might be argued that calling the guy a "delusional jackass" was malicious. I would argue that that is the truth, regardless of intent.

I would argue that the man is delusional - he actually believes he has the rights afforded to a law enforcement officer, including wearing a replica uniform and riding a police-like vehicle that is an exact copy except for the logos (and one of the logos on his motorcycle was actually a Highway Patrol drill team logo). He parks illegally and throws up a police issued "official business" placard. He thinks he is one of them.

Is he a jackass? The guys from the TV show by the same name pull stupid stunts all the time. This guy is pulling stupid stunts (like riding a police-like motorcycle in costume) as well. By common, accepted definition, I'm thinking he's a jackass. Plus, he abuses his connections. That makes him a jackass.

Regardless of the truth here, calling him a delusional jackass is a statement of opinion, and opinions are protected by the First Amendment.

Any libel suit filed under this circumstance would be deemed frivolous in a court of law. Pennsylvania defines frivolous as "lacking an arguable basis either in law or in fact."

It is against the law, according to the Pennsylvania code, to file a frivolous lawsuit.

Generally speaking, attorney's fees are not recoverable. But in cases of frivolous lawsuits, fees can be recovered.


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