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I just discovered that a number of people are calling Alan Dershowitz - the attorney famously linked to Jeffrey Epstein - a pedophile online. Consider this statement made on Twitter:

Alan Dershowitz is a pedophile with ties to billionaire pedophile Jeff Epstein. But so is Trump, so your support for Dershowitz makes sense.

Can someone explain what makes this statement legal? Or are they simply calculating that he won't sue them for libel, either because he doesn't have the time and resources to take on everyone making this charge or he thinks a libel suit could somehow backfire?

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    I don't understand why someone would downvote this question. – Iñaki Viggers Aug 11 at 13:14
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    That makes two of us. ;) – David Blomstrom Aug 11 at 14:36
  • Ironically, I just realized that a "pedophile" is technically a person who has sex with pre-pubescent children, not teens. However, I think that has little impact on my question or the answers - unless someone wanted to sue another person for using the wrong word to describe them. ;) – David Blomstrom Aug 11 at 21:08
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Calling a person a pedophile is not legal in a strict sense (ignoring for now if he is factually a pedophile; if he is, it's not illegal since it's true) because a statement like that is considered libel per se, or is clearly libelous on its face. Libel is defamation and defined as a false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone's reputation, and is published as a result of negligence or malice. See Defamation - Wikipedia.

But libel per se is different than "plain" libel, since libel per se is an accusation that by its nature causes damage: the categories of libel per se are involvement in criminal activity, having a loathsome, contagious or infectious disease, sexual looseness, and professional incompetence.

Now, the person who is the subject of libel (or their attorney) must take action against the publisher of the accusation, i.e. the tweeter(s), if they wish to fight the accusation and attempt to correct the record and get monetary damages. (Twitter itself is generally protected by the Communications Decency Act | Electronic Frontier Foundation).

But the subject of libel may not take action for political reasons. Dershowitz might feel he may suffer more ridicule for suing for defamation rather than ignoring it. And, if he did go to court, he opens himself up to discovery, and that may reveal more aspects of his life and business that he'd rather not.

Defamation is a civil tort; but some states criminalize defamation.

And Dershowitz may feel like being very careful with what he says in response, as Elon Mush got himself in a bit of trouble: Elon Musk’s ‘pedo guy’ defamation case is going to trial | TechCrunch.

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We can't know whether it's legal, because it's legal if it's true, regardless of whether he has been formally accused or convicted. But in the absence of a conviction or publicly available evidence, we can't know whether it's true.

We also can't know why anyone making that statement is doing so. They might be making the calculation you suggest, or they might just be ignorant of defamation law and the liability to which they are exposing themselves.

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In the UK it is illegal to say that someone has committed a crime when in fact, they havent.

Having sex with a child is illegal. Therefore, claiming that someone has is illegal, unless of course, the claim is true.

The question then becomes: does calling someone a pedophile amount to claiming that they have committed a crime?

It probably depends on the full statement.

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Is it legal to call someone a pedophile without a conviction?

It depends, as the other answers have explained. I will add that a conviction is not indispensable for referring to someone as pedophile or criminal. What matters is whether the publisher has sufficient, objective grounds supporting his communication(s) that a person committed a specific crime.

Other than pleading guilty, a conviction only means that a jury determined that the evidence sufficiently supports a finding of guilt. But there are instances where a person commits a crime (as reflected by reliable sources) and yet the criminal is not convicted or even prosecuted. That gap could arise inter alia from negotiations with prosecutors (a form of settlement), prosecutorial discretion, or plain corruption.

Consider the matter of Carol Kuhnke, the Michigan judge who in 2016 got busted for illegal possession of narcotics during the investigation of a teenager's drug overdose. Referring to this judge as narco-felon is neither illegal nor actionable defamation, since that label is supported by --at least--:

  • a police report (see last page) where the detective "determined that Carol Kuhnke [...] knowingly possessed Oxycodone at their residence that was not prescribed to them", and
  • a letter by the special prosecutor informing the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission that:

I concluded that the evidence supported the filing of criminal charges for the possession of controlled substances that were not prescribed to her.

The prosecutor's decision not to prosecute this judge does not change the undisputed determination/finding that she committed an offense which Michigan law typifies as felony.

Thus, in both this case and the example to which you refer, what would be illegal/defamatory is to convey that the person at issue was convicted. Other than that, the outcome (or lack) of judicial proceedings sometimes bears no relation with the lawful evidence that justify conveying that a crook committed crimes.

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Pedophile - noun Psychiatry. an adult who is sexually attracted to young children.

You'll note that this does not describe any illegal action; attraction is worrying and often leads to illegal activity, but it is not illegal in and of itself. Calling someone a "pedophile" is no different than calling someone schizophrenic, psychopathic, autistic, or any other DSM-5 mental disorder. Libel could still apply, but one need not be convicted of anything to be a pedophile.

  • Wow, that's an intriguing answer. Now that I think about it, it's amazing that the media are freely calling Epstein and his friends "pedophiles" when they may literally be something else. – David Blomstrom Aug 12 at 8:12
  • If someone is accused of being a paedophile, they are quite likely to be able to succeed in a defamation case (assuming it isn't true of course). The general public's reaction to the label (and hence whether it is defamation) is not the same as to, for instance, "autistic". – Martin Bonner Aug 12 at 9:47
  • I'd like to point out that, as per BlueDogRanch's answer, accusation of having a "loathsome disease", which pedophilia definitely counts as, is also covered by libel laws. – HAEM Aug 12 at 13:06

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