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So I've read the following: "You cannot publish untrue information about anyone or anything that could negatively affect that person or thing's reputation on your public blog. It doesn't matter if you get no traffic to your blog. If you publish something false about a person or entity that could damage their reputation, you've committed libel and could be in big trouble. If you can't prove the negative and potentially harmful information you publish on your public blog is true, don't publish it at all."

Then what about Newpapers? Reviewers? Vloggers? That doesn't make any sense. Anyone could sue anybody then, where is freedom of opinion here and what about something someone publishes which you take for a true statement, that turns out to be false? I mean this is ridiculous. How can this be true?

Lets say Tom posts an article and mentions that John was sued 3 months ago. Can John then go ahead and sue Tom for Libel if John was sued 5 months ago claiming it hurt his reputation?

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    The law on this issue is different in different countries and your question does not accurately state the law everywhere. German, English and U.S. law on this point would be different. Where are you concerned about knowing the law? – ohwilleke Sep 5 '17 at 21:32
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    Also tags changed. Libel and copyright are entirely different issues. Some jurisdictions have criminal libel laws, but many do not. Usually, libel is a tort enforced in a civil lawsuit rather than a crime. – ohwilleke Sep 5 '17 at 21:35
  • @ohwilleke its actually about Germany but I assumed that would be to narrow of a question to ask. Thanks for editing that btw. – Eli S. Sep 6 '17 at 21:05
  • It is usually too broad a question if not specified to one country as most legal questions have different answers under the laws of different countries and this would absolutely apply in the case of libel law. – ohwilleke Sep 7 '17 at 3:18
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Anyone could sue anybody then

Yes, anyone can sue anyone for anything at any time - that's what equality under the law means. Of course, if you sue and lose things get expensive. If you do it a lot, then you can be designated a vexatious litigant and lose the right to sue without the court's permission.

The only people who have protection from being sued for libel are parliamentarians for statements the make in the chamber in some jurisdictions (see parliamentary privilege).

You can't sue people for expressing opinions, only for misstating a fact. For example, if you write or say that I'm a d#%^head then that is not actionable: whether I am or am not is an opinion, not an objective fact. If you say I am a thief and I have never been convicted of stealing, that is actionable because I am objectively not a thief. If I am facing charges of theft then I am an "alleged thief": if you say that you are fine, if you say I am a thief, I can sue.

The misstatement must do damage: for your example where I misstate the date of the event, that is not actionable because the timing is not the damaging part of the statement, the fact of the litigation is and that part is factually accurate.

And, yes, newspapers, radio stations and tv broadcasters get sued all the time - that's why they have big legal departments.

Libel law differs between jurisdictions. For example, you have the most latitude in the United States because of their freedom of speech amendment - you can say things there that will bankrupt you in the U.K. or Australia.

  • "alleged thief": if you say that you are fine - I don't think that's true. Just sticking an "alleged" in won't necessarily cover you in the UK. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 9 '17 at 10:04
  • @MartinBonner: much depends on who has made the allegations,and how publicly. If, as here, a charge of theft has been brought then "alleged thief" is purely descriptive and non-defamatory. – Tim Lymington supports Monica Oct 10 '17 at 10:47
  • @TimLymington - There are certainly cases where adding an "alleged" will save one from libel. My point is that some people believe that adding "alleged" will always save one from libel - and they are wrong. – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 10 '17 at 11:37
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Freedom of opinion, and the right to express your opinion, are not threatened by the fact that a person can be sued for libel. Libel (defamation) is the publication of false claim of fact which causes damage to another. If I say that I think such and such movie was terrible, that is an expression of opinion. If I say that a movie is terrible, that is an opinion, not statement of a fact. If I say that you are a murder, that, on the other hand, is a statement of fact (which I presume is false).

If Tom incorrectly claims that John was sued 3 months ago and John can prove that that statement damaged him, he might be able to collect whatever that damage was: but proving damage would be a tall order. If the damage was due to the suit, then the salient fact is true, which is a defense against the lawsuit. So the damage would have to be due to the incorrect time frame. John would especially have to overcome the argument that his reputation was already sullied because he was indeed sued 5 months ago.

However, if John is a public person, then John has to show "actual malice", that is, knowing that the claim is false or willfully disregarding the truth. It doesn't matter how you as a reader "take" a statement, what matters is the objective content of the statement.

The media is more cautious about defaming private individuals, but not as cautious when talking about public figures. People who post online, on the other hand, frequently skate past the thin ice, and can end up getting sued.

  • "actual malice" : The question is about Germany (not other jurisdictions). What German legal term corresponds to "actual malice". (I am deeply suspicious that you are restating libel law in the US rather than actually talking about German law.) – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 9 '17 at 10:06
  • At the time, the question was not about Germany, it was jurisdiction-free. – user6726 Oct 9 '17 at 14:36
  • Ah! Even so, you should probably clarify that your answer is US specific – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 9 '17 at 14:38
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Defamation Law In Germany

Germany's defamation laws are among the most draconian in Europe and do little to protect a newspaper's free speech rights. There is probably no developed, democratic country in the world with weaker free speech and free press protections. Some non-democratic countries protect free speech more vigorously than Germany does.

In Germany, you usually don't even need to hire your own lawyer to sue someone for defamation. Instead, often a government prosecutor will bring criminal charges at public expense against someone who allegedly defamed you.

Roughly two hundred thousand criminal defamation cases are investigated by law enforcement each year in a country with about 25% of the population of the United State.

Merely insulting someone in public in Germany is a misdemeanor (confirmed here) and such cases are seriously investigated when they involve high government officials including foreign ones. For example:

In 2007, a Swiss citizen living in Bavaria was convicted of insulting Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey and sentenced to pay a criminal fine.

Similarly:

The Beleidigunggesetz, or law protecting people against insults, isn’t always enforced, but certainly can be. “The law against insulting another person in public has been on the books since 1871, and it can be taken quite seriously in Germany,” said Volker Schmitt, a lawyer based in Berlin.

Paragraph 185, Section 14 of the criminal code still reads almost exactly as it was written 145 years ago: “An insult shall be punished with imprisonment not exceeding one year or a fine and if the insult is committed by means of an assault with imprisonment not exceeding two years.”

“The law is designed to protect people’s honor,” said Karsten Gulden, a lawyer who specializes in the issue. “Respect for people and their reputation enjoys legal protection, and shouldn’t be verbally violated.”

There were 218,414 cases of insults filed with prosecutors in Germany in 2015, down slightly from 225,098 in 2014, but far above numbers of around 150,000 recorded a decade ago. Americans and other foreigners living in Germany sometimes run afoul of the law, unaware of it, and end up being called into police or prosecutor’s offices to explain their side of the story, before their cases are usually dismissed.

Hardly anyone ends up in jail for insulting their neighbor in the midst of a heated dispute, or for flashing the middle finger — the Stinkefinger, or “stinky finger,” as Germans call it — at another motorist in heavy traffic. But cases do wind up in court and fines are sometimes handed down.

In a precedent-setting 1995 ruling, a Schwaebisch Hall court awarded a man 460 euros over racist comments against his wife, who is black. In 1997, a boss who called a pregnant employee “Germany’s laziest worker” in an in-house magazine was fined 2,500 euros. In 1998, a court in Heilbronn awarded a police officer 350 euros after another person called him a “wanker.”

It is a felony punishable by up to two years in prison to speak ill of the dead in Germany, even if the statement is true.

This includes statements made on the Internet (via a link above):

The law extends to insults made online as well. “If someone makes comments on the Internet that violate the law, German authorities have the right to obtain data from the providers about the person who made the comments in order to go after the perpetrator,” said Gulden.

A Berlin court awarded one person 8,190 euros in 2011 for insults published against him in social media; in a 2012 case, a trainee who made disparaging remarks about her boss on Facebook had to pay 2,500 euros in damages. A student accepted a 5,000 euro out-of-court settlement in 2013 for racist remarks made in a rap song about him posted on YouTube. The 13-year-old's family had originally demanded 14,000 euros in court.

Freedom of the press as it is known in North America (or even the much diminished version of it that exists in the U.K.) is basically non-existent in Germany.

Lets say Tom posts an article and mentions that John was sued 3 months ago. Can John then go ahead and sue Tom for Libel if John was sued 5 months ago claiming it hurt his reputation?

Anybody can sue anyone for anything.

Would they win? Probably not.

Even under Germany's draconian defamation and insult laws, an inaccuracy has to be material, there would have to be proof of damages for a statement that isn't reputation harming on its face, and generally criminal defamation suits wouldn't be available unless the person making the false statement did not intentionally. One would need more facts to demonstrate why a seemingly slight inaccuracy could give rise to liability or harm someone's reputation.

Defamation Law In The United States

In contrast, in the United States, criminal defamation prosecutions are exceedingly rare, and even civil lawsuits alleging defamation are uncommon.

Only one in three U.S. states has any criminal defamation statute and those are rarely used. On average three criminal defamation cases are prosecuted per year in the entire United States, and only about 15% of those prosecutions result in convictions (about one every other year in the entire United States), usually with misdemeanor punishments. Only one person in the entire United States is actually incarcerated pursuant to a criminal defamation conviction every four years, on average. The modern trend is to repeal the remaining criminal defamation statutes.

Between 1992 and August 2004, 41 criminal defamation cases were brought to court in the United States, among which six defendants were convicted. From 1965 to 2004, 16 cases ended in final conviction, among which nine resulted in jail sentences (average sentence, 173 days). Other criminal cases resulted in fines (average fine, $1,700), probation (average of 547 days), community service (on average 120 hours), or writing a letter of apology.

Adjusted for population, the U.S. rate of criminal defamation convictions would be equivalent to three criminal defamation convictions in Germany's entire post-WWII history.

In the U.S., in a lawsuit against a media defendant, to prevail in a defamation lawsuit it is generally necessary to show not just that the statement was false, but that it was made with "actual malice" (i.e. knowing that it was false or with reckless disregard as to its truth or falsity). A statement made in good faith (e.g. with a disclosed source) is not actionable even if it is false and causes great harm to someone's reputation.

Many categories of statements are immune from liability under U.S. law, because they are not statements of fact that can be proven to be true or false. For example, there is generally near complete immunity from liability for insults or statements of opinion.

Indeed, there are some situations where even false statements of fact that relate to a person's reputation are protected from liability. These include most statements about politics.

In theory, the U.S. Constitution allows for criminal defamation prosecutions in almost any circumstance where civil liability would be permitted, but in practice, these prosecutions are vanishingly rare.

Defamation claims in the U.S. arise from state common law and state law also often disfavors such claims. For example, while most torts in Colorado have two or three year statutes of limitation, the statute of limitations for defamation in Colorado is one year and courts don't hesitate to dismiss such cases prior to trial to nearly the same extent that they would in other kinds of tort cases.

Also, in general, notwithstanding a historical concept of "negligence per se" that allows an award of damages without proof of actual harm to reputation causing economic harm for certain kinds of statements, U.S. Constitutional law now generally requires proof of actual damages in a suit for defamation against a media defendant.

Many U.S. states have Anti-SLAPP statutes (for strategic lawsuits against public participation) which seriously penalize parties that bring meritless defamation lawsuits (in light of high thresholds for liability for such lawsuits).

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    Reporters Without Borders disagrees with your assessment that “[f]reedom of the press as it is known in North America (or even the much diminished version of it that exists in the U.K.) is basically non-existent in Germany”. In its 2017 World Press Freedom Index, it ranks Germany 16th, the UK 40th, the US 43rd. – chirlu Sep 10 '17 at 22:32
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    @chirlu I would respectfully disagree with their assessment and would also note that in the sub-category of "abuse" of journalists that Germany scores worse than the U.S. and second worst (slightly better than Italy) compared to other European countries. They don't give sufficient weight to Germany's pervasive private sector directed speed antipress insult laws while they have a narrative section describing many recent anti-press laws in Germany, I don't believe that they get sufficient weight. The main faults assigned to the U.S. relate to covering govt leaks which I believe is overestimated. – ohwilleke Sep 11 '17 at 18:33
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    While the situation is certainly not as good as it could be, I can’t see how this would support your statement that there is no freedom of the press at all in Germany. – BTW, all your writing about the draconian criminal laws against insults, defamation etc. is quite beside the point. I’m not aware of a single case where a journalist was convicted (or even tried) for any of these crimes; the typical case for those quarter-million figure you cite is rather someone calling his neighbour names in the course of a heated argument. Far more relevant for the press are civil lawsuits. – chirlu Sep 11 '17 at 19:31
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    FANTASTIC answer. (And very informative about German insult laws - I'm glad I'm normally quite polite.) – Martin Bonner supports Monica Oct 9 '17 at 10:11
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    @chirlu these ratings are extremely biased, see this related post – JonathanReez Supports Monica Oct 4 at 1:20

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