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So I went to CNN's website today at 6:40est today and saw a headline "Google fires male engineer for reportedly saying Women shouldn't work in the tech industry"

Mind you it was just a headline and not the content of the article, but at the same time anyone who read the memo can tell you that it was a patently false statement. Now not even 10 minutes later it seems that it was pulled.

But the question being can defamation/libel be bypassed just by saying such words as "I think", "Reportedly", "Allegedly" while alleging a patently false statement and be safe from charges of defamation in the US?

  • This is just my guess because I'm not a lawyer. If CNN had a story that said "SCFi likes to take baths in lemonade" and then I wrote a story that said "SCfi reportedly likes to take baths in lemonade" then I would not be guilty of defamation because it WAS reported previously. If there was no previous report, then I think that I COULD be guilty of defamation. – James Aug 8 '17 at 11:18
  • @James that's just silly who doesn't like Lemonade baths high citrus levels insure a smooth clean, but if you were to say I think or Allegedly with anonymous sources would you still be able to do such a thing? That seems like a terrible oversight if so. I guess another question would be if the media has any requirement to check its sources integrity – SCFi Aug 8 '17 at 11:21
  • Also a related Question about Defamation law.stackexchange.com/questions/3786/… – SCFi Aug 8 '17 at 17:14
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Defamation

You are asking about libel here because it was published words that stated what you say is false.

Defamatory statements are those that are communicated as a fact by someone to one or more other people that causes damage and harms the reputation and/or standing in the community of the plaintiff.

Defenses to such charges include:

  • fair comment: opinion based on accurate facts that do not allege dishonorable motives about the plaintiff
  • things said about politicians, actors, anyone who is “public” enough of a person
  • minor mistakes in reporting
  • public records cannot be found to be libel
  • the truth - if it was true, can’t sue.

The basics of the determination of whether something is defamatory is that the statement must be false and must concern a verifiable fact. Some state laws provide extra protection for newspapers above and beyond what an individual would receive publishing or stating the same falsity. Also, it does not have to be 100% true. As long as it is substantially true, as long as the media that published the statement can justify the “gist” of what they said about someone, they will be fine.

The reason printing whatever was printed about the guy from Google won’t make a newspaper liable for defamation is because there really is not a verifiable fact at issue. You can say you saw the text and it certainly was not the case that the guy was saying women shouldn’t work there. However, apparently a lot of people read the same thing and thought the opposite for you. It is subjective and, thus, unverifiable.

Can the media do whatever it wants?

No, that's not the case. The word "alleged" protects a statement if you can attribute the statement to an official source you're reporting from. For example, using alleged, you would be using the cops or a lawsuit or indictment as the source of whatever the subsequent sentence would be.

Journalists are generally immune from libel liability when they fairly and accurately report incorrect info that comes from an official source. Further, the case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan from 1964 established that, to hold a journalist liable for libel, one must show "actual malice" on the journalist's behalf. Again, the report must simply convey an accurate "gist" of the story "regardless of whether 'trained lawyers or judges might with the luxury of time have chosen more precise words.'"

Second Edit to Respond to Questions

Responding to the comment below:

Actual Malice: The actual malice standard is not always applicable to everyone. It is a requirement for a public figure to show that a publisher or broadcaster acted with actual malice, and thus should be held liable for defamation. Only in the instance that a private individual is attempting to recover punitive damages against the defendant would the actual malice standard come into play. I should have, but did not, include that information originally.

Journalists: Certainly this could apply to anyone with a medium which today is broader than the time when the principle came about, but is still largely made up on media professionals. Nonetheless, the standard is, as stated, that “[A] defendant is not required in an action of libel to justify every word of the alleged defamatory matter; it is sufficient if the substance, the gist, the sting of the libelous charge be justified…” See Kurata v. Los Angeles News Publishing Co., 4 Cal. App. 2d 224, 40 P2d 520, 522 (1935)). This standard has been adopted by many, although not all, jurisdictions.

Also, as referenced above, a journalist is indeed generally held immune from liability for the publication of defamatory statements so long as the journalist “fairly and accurately report[ed]” the information from an official source. “The publication of defamatory matter is privileged if it appears in a report of an official action or proceeding, or a public m meeting that deals with a matter of public concern, and the report is accurate and complete.” See Meddico v. Time, Inc., 643 F.2d 134 (3d Cir. 1981).

  • First off youtube.com/watch?v=XscaGDxuQqE and secondly so the press can more or less print anything so long as it is not objective. even "Breaking X and Y might be part of a pedophile according to anonymous sources" so long as they include the might and not is? – SCFi Aug 8 '17 at 12:26
  • Nice clip! Updated the answer for you. – A.fm. Aug 8 '17 at 12:52
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    Np. Another interesting tidbit, not necessarily relevant to your question but I came across it while looking up the answer, is that this is why reporters are often loathe to issue retractions. It inherently admits a mistake of fact, which potentially could open them up to this sort of legal trouble. – A.fm. Aug 8 '17 at 12:55
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    I question the conclusion that journalists have any special immunity to liability as you claim, or that it has to do with "fairly and accurately report incorrect info that comes from an official source". It is plainly wrong to say that the actual malice standard is about journalists: it is available to everyone, and has to do with libeling public figures. I'd lie to see some case law to support your position. – user6726 Aug 8 '17 at 17:19
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    Outside of the omission that the actual malice standard usually applies specifically to public figures, the answer stands, but has been expanded to further address the things you brought up. – A.fm. Aug 8 '17 at 18:47
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can defamation/libel be bypassed just by saying such words as "I think", "Reportedly", "Allegedly" while alleging a patently false statement and be safe from charges of defamation in the US?

No. That type of expressions does not hedge against liability for defamation. The U.S. Supreme Court addressed this issue in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1, 18-19 (1990):

If a speaker says, "In my opinion John Jones is a liar," he implies a knowledge of facts which lead to the conclusion that Jones told an untruth. Even if the speaker states the facts upon which he bases his opinion, if those facts are either incorrect or incomplete, or if his assessment of them is erroneous, the statement may still imply a false assertion of fact. Simply couching such statements in terms of opinion does not dispel these implications; and the statement, "In my opinion Jones is a liar," can cause as much damage to reputation as the statement, "Jones is a liar." As Judge Friendly aptly stated: "[It] would be destructive of the law of libel if a writer could escape liability for accusations of [defamatory conduct] simply by using, explicitly or implicitly, the words `I think.'"

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