Sunday, October 22, 2006

In libel, truth is a defense

The prevailing belief is that truth, in libel is a defense.
It conforms to the biblical assurance that "the truth shall set you free."
If one looks at the common-law based libel statute, its says that every defamatory imputation is presumed malicious, even if it be true, if no good motive or jusitifable intentions is shown.
Thus, the old concept in libel is that truth does not matter in libel. Even if one speaks the truth, if it is defamatory and without good intentions, he can still be punished.
Contrary to the belief of many libel complainants, press freedom is not so much about elicitng the truth than it is to protect the people's right to self expression and self-governance.
Press freedom doctrines recognize that the search for truth can be so diffificult such that the constitutional guarantee on press freedom concerns itself to protect the journalists right to publish.
Errors of fact, meaning untruths, are protected in defamation cases, particuarly those that involve political or public speech.
The United States Supreme Court in New York Times Co. versus Sullivan gave the reason behind this belief: Erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and that it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the "breathing space" that they "need . . . to survive.
Neither "factual error" nor "defamatory content" suffices to remove the constitutional shield from criticism of official conduct, said the Supreme Court.
The issue therefore in libel and defamation cases, at least in so far as public defamation is concerned, is a determination as to the existence (or non-existence) of (actual) malice, rather than the truth or falsity of the statement.
Of course, this goes without saying that truth leads to absolution.
In other words, when truth is spoken, even if it is defamatory and malicious, the writer or speaker is excused.
This is what the United States Supreme Court said in Garrison versus Louisiana: If upon a lawful occasion for making a publication, he has published the truth, and no more, there is no sound principle which can make him liable, even if he was actuated by express malice
The Supreme Court here validated what was declared in a very old case decided in a New Hampshire court, in State v. Burnham, 9 N. H. 34, 42-43, 31 Am. Dec. 217, 221 (1837).
Yet this is a bold statement that sends shockwaves to the traditional belief that in order to be insulated from libel, one must not only speak the truth, but must do so with good intentions and justifiable motives.
But the United States Supreme Court in Garrison versus Louisiana said speaking the truth by itself, and nothing more, is a justifying circumstances that excuses one from any liability for libel.
The Surpeme Court said: "It has been said that it is lawful to publish truth from good motives, and for justifiable ends. But this rule is too narrow. If there is a lawful occasion - a legal right to make a publication - and the matter true, the end is justifiable, and that, in such case, must be sufficient."
So as to the question: In libel, is truth a defense?
The answer, is yes.

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