Can one be punished / successfully sued for sharing libelous material written by someone else? For example, I read on a news website that John Doe committed a horrible crime. If I share this article, for example, by linking to it on my social media account, can I be held responsible if it is later proven that the article was libelous? If so, am I personally responsible to determine the truthiness of the article?

Does it matter in which way do I share it? I could imagine several scenarios from least to most harsh:

  1. Hey, I've seen this article about John Doe doing this evil act, is it really so?
  2. Did John Doe really commit this evil act? Take a look at what some experts say.
  3. Wow, it's so shocking to find what horrible things John Doe did!
  4. John Doe is evil, he did these horrible things! And I have evidence to prove it! Look here!

If any of the above is punishable, for example in the case it later becomes well known that the linked story is fake, do I have the responsibility to continue checking the news about this topic and remove my post after I've learned the truth about the fake article? Can I claim I didn't follow the story and didn't know it was fake? Who has the burden of proof?

If the answer to these examples is "no", are there situations where it can be libel? For example, standing on a street corner and handing out printed copies of the article, or some other scenarios?

  • “Truthiness” is a nice word - I like it better than “truthfulness”
    – Dale M
    May 31 '19 at 21:43
  • 1
    @DaleM They are not synonyms. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truthiness Jun 2 '19 at 10:59
  • @PaulJohnson ah. Well, in that case the OP should probably not be using it - defamation law only cares about truthfulness not truthiness.
    – Dale M
    Jun 2 '19 at 12:12

So for each scenario (In all scenarios, John Doe is Evil is a false statement):

  1. Not Libel at all. Sensational at best. Here you are seeking verification of someone else allegation. You may have formed an opinion already and are looking for validation of that opinion OR you are looking for other sources to better form your opinion. There is no ascertain that "John Doe is Evil" in this message. No situation can make it libelous since it does not make any false statements.

  2. Not really, but it's wiggly. Experts usually offer opinions based on known facts, not facts, so your reporting on the opinions other people with purported knowledge are saying based on facts in evidence. There is no lie on your part, as Dr. Quakenheim did say it his opinion, not undisputed truth. Your own personal statement is Dr. Quakenheim is an expert in a field and made a statement you agree with. These are all unfalseable statements (statements that cannot be said to be false. Facts are falseble statements, or rather, through objective logical means, able to be shown to be truth or false).

  3. Given the scenario is a private person sharing among friends and John Doe has been evil, probably not libel, but watch it buster. At this point, Mr. Doe is a public figure right now as you are commenting on an existing news article. This carries a higher burden of proof Doe has to meet, namely he has to show you were being malicious in your reporting or grossly negligent. Sharing someone else's article is not malicious, nor is your lack of attempt to verify grossly negative. However, if you're a reporter and this is the headline of the report, it's potentionally libelous (if the jury in a trial has yet to render a verdict, you need to report he is accused of being evil. Failure to do so is malicious or grossly negligent as you are not guilty until the jury renders a verdict, thus at this stage, he is legally evil, merely accused of being evil.

  4. Probably not libalous. This is your opinion and is being backed up with evidence and your interpretation there of. As a social media post, definitely libelous. As an article title, it's tricky but carries the case for the above reasons. Still, as this story is likely been in the news applies, there is a good case that this is discussing a story of public interest which helps against it. It's harder to get you on libel if the Doe is public person in this stage.

In this case, in the U.S. speech is presumed Protected under the First Amendment, until proven otherwise. A fancy way of saying that the burden of proof in libel is never on the person who made potentially libelous speech and always on the person who makes the claim that it is libel. The best course for prevention of libel is to correct the record and admit your mistake. Most online articles will modify the article to reflect the bad reporting explain the change (normally on the bottom of the article, where the writers put all the stuff that cuts against the article). Though depending on how much the article got wrong, it might get retracted entirely if there is no salvagable information. For example if John Doe was involved in an accident that that resulted in the death of the motorist, a correction may look like Correction: This article originally published that John Doe was the cause of the accident. It was actually an escaped circus monkey in a tractor trailer. This article has been updated to reflect these changes

Explaining the false information and correcting the matter to reflect the true information in a timely manner goes a long way to correcting the record enough to foil libel attempts.

  • Just one minor question about the last paragraph: in such a case, would I, in this hypothetical case, be responsible to watch the news and follow the events and correct it? Or can it happen that John Doe sues me for libel, and then it is too late for me to correct or retract it, because he argues that I should have known better and should have corrected it, and by not correcting it and leaving it public, I did damages to him.
    – vsz
    May 31 '19 at 20:04
  • As a private person commenting on a story in the news? I wouldn't expect this to be an issue as you don't have much in the way of visible presence. Generally, if there is a possible libel suit, one of the first sides of the plantif is to send you notification of possible action of libelous posts and requests to remedy (If your following the libel suits related to Covington Catholic High School, the lawyers for the Plaintif did send news media with positional actionable articles requests to correct he record to avert possible legal actions. It was some time between reports of these notices+
    – hszmv
    May 31 '19 at 20:13
  • @vsz someone can attempt to sue you for nearly any crazy thing. It would be up to you to defend yourself if John Doe sues. If you made an honest mistake and corrected it you should be fine.
    – Putvi
    May 31 '19 at 20:13
  • +And the actual lawsuits being filed in court.
    – hszmv
    May 31 '19 at 20:14
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    Also, this presumes a U.S. Jurisdiction. If not the Jurisdiction you are in, please amend as this won't be the correct answer. The U.S. does not comply with Libel Tourism so a U.K. libel case (which has different standards and favors the plantif and not the defense) will not be honored by the U.S. unless the case can be proven in the U.S. additionally.
    – hszmv
    May 31 '19 at 20:17

None of the above utterances are defamatory, because they do not refer to a damaging fact. If you replace "is evil" with something that refers to a fact, you might distinguish the cases. It would be defamation just in case you assert a false and damaging claim. Replace "is evil" with "murdered his parents". Asking if Doe murdered his parents does not assert anything. Asking that and accurately attributing a false assertion made by others is not itself false -- it is true that others made a false assertion. Furthermore, saying "Look at this" asserts nothing. (If you falsely assert that Smith accused Doe of murder, you have not defamed Doe, you have defamed Smith).

Your third example has you endorsing an assertion made by someone else, which is not the same as asserting a false statement. The last (modified) example does assert a falsehood. The question is whether there is a difference between saying "Doe murdered his parents", end of story, and saying "Doe murdered his parents, here is my evidence": if a reasonable person would believe the evidence as presented but it turns out that the conclusion is still wrong (the evidence turns out to be insufficient), are you still liable for your mistaken conclusion?

The law defines defamation in terms of the elements of being a false statement purporting to be fact; publication; fault at least at the level of negligence; damage to reputation. Regarding the "fault" component, there is a complication regarding who Doe is (in the US). If Doe is a public figure, the plaintiff would have to show that you made the statement with actual malice, e.g. reckless disregard for whether the statement is true. Believing reports by other people is not reckless disregard for the truth of the statement. But if Doe is a private citizen, the bar for defamation is lower.

The question would be whether making the statement based on erroneous evidence is negligent. We would have to investigate the details of that evidence, but the general procedure is to ask whether a prudent person, being reasonably cautious, would know that the evidence for the claim is insufficient. It is easy to construct an evidence scenario that seems credible but where a scientific expert would know that the evidence does not support the conclusion. Certain DNA facts might reasonably indicate that Doe was the murderer, but a deeper scientific investigation could show that Doe or anyone else with ancestry from that village in the Carpathians was probably the murderer. The law does not require people to be scientists.

  • Sorry, I wanted to be general, and my words ended up being taken literally. I'm clarifying the question.
    – vsz
    Jun 1 '19 at 18:27

You are right that it depends on how you say it and what you know. You can't intentionally spread falsehoods that damage the person.

If you say someone said this in a way that does not equal you endorsing a lie you are not liable.

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