www.whyville.net Jan 4, 2009 Weekly Issue

Times Writer

What is Libel?

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What is libel? According to the dictionary, libel is "a false and malicious publication printed for the purpose of defaming a living person". You might think that since I've set out to define libel and have done so in only two sentence, this is going to be the shortest article in the history of the Whyville Times. I'm afraid not. Libel might seem easy to understand: don't spread lies about anyone who's alive, but libel can get a little tricky and since it applies largely to written work, it is more than applicable to the Whyville Times, which I'm assuming you are currently reading.

Let's start off with what libel is. Again, in case you missed it the first two times I said it, libel is basically spreading rumors about someone in print. It's a legal term and it makes sense if you think about it, imagine what the papers would say if they could just say whatever they wanted. Mariah Carey wouldn't make an appearance at the New York Times Benefit Gala? No problem! They'll just say that she's gone out and hired a hit man to off Britney Spears. It's called revenge. Or imagine what anti-Bush newspapers would publish if they could make up whatever they fancied - today he could be dancing in a ballroom with Winston Churchill and tomorrow he could be eating endangered whale species for dinner.* The world would be chaotic to say the least because printed material, especially newspapers like the Whyville Times try to be as credible as possible.

So, we've scoped out what libel is and why it exists. I think that we should also figure out why it's relevant to Whyville and that's exactly why I'm here. In May 2003 I was considerably younger than I am now and I wrote an article called "Smart Money" (Article ID: 2788) for the Whyville Times. Now, I do not remember every article that I have ever written, and this was almost 6 years ago, but this article got me thinking because it made me feel extremely guilty after it was published - and it also happened to be my introduction to libel.

To get you up to speed, I wrote an article about how people were "cheating" at the smart cars game. (I went back and read the article to refresh my own memory.) People were not going all the way around the track, they were essentially just turning their cars around and winning the race. This is considered cheating in real world events, so I named some top ranked racers who were "cheating," because in my opinion they were! And what did the Editor at the time have to say? He said, "Ah, but you also need to be aware of libel, Giggler01 -- in real life, you can be sued for smearing somebody's name! Is this libel? Somebody research libel for us and let us know!" Okay, it took me six years but I got around it, but why now?

The issue of libel is tedious in the Whyville Times, regardless of who wants to admit it or not. Have you ever seen your username in print and thought, "Gee, I wish they hadn't used my name that way." I used to get upset when my face was published in Holiday50's fashion articles. But that's not libel - gossip columns publish all sorts of pictures of celebrities doing their day-to-day activities and no one is suing them for misrepresentation. But then you get articles like "RE: Mean Girls" where the author names certain people who participated in the BBS and says, "I worry that mean girls will grow into mean women instead of learning from their past mistakes. How can we progress if we see no better path?"

Wait a minute . . . is she not implying then, that specific people are mean girls who will grow into mean women? I don't know very much about the people named, but I know enough to know that they are not truly mean-spirited at heart, so does that count as misrepresentation? It sounds like defamation to me! And then to make matters more complicated you get a City Worker who says "Of course when you start to spread lies and damaging information, that's against the law, but that was not this case." What is the case, then? Well, I may have drawn some negative conclusions from this article, but they were my own inferences - not the words of the author, and furthermore the author is presenting her opinion, she is not making up some sort of story about any of these girls so it is not technically libel, no matter how upset the people mentioned were.

But Amae also said in the BBS, "When you do need someone's permission is when you are using their image, or their avatar, as a picture or example for something." This means two things: first of all it means that the rules have changed since my face was used in Holiday50's fashion articles, but it also means that we've exited the realm of libel, because didn't we agree earlier that my face being used was not libel so why should it require permission? Let us turn now to the idea of "consent to publish".

When I was younger I was interviewed for the evening news, but before the interview could be aired my parents had to sign a form to grant permission for my face to be shown. In short, this form contained some sort of statement in which the person signing the document says "I give you permission to use my name, face and/or work in the manner described." Now, I am far less of an expert (*cough*) in this field but it is my understanding that this has to do more so with copyright laws than with libel. That being said, it is being used to a very limited extent within the Whyville Times - should it be applied to a broader scope? I will repeat that I'm no expert in this area, but I'm sure the girls named last week would like to weigh in on this one.

I mentioned earlier that I remember feeling guilty after my "libelous" article was published, but it was not because of what the Editor had to say. I received a letter from one of the people I had named that really resonated with me. If I did not apologize then, I do now. I maintain that what I said was not libel but I have also realized that Whyvillians are not celebrities with constant tabloid exposure. They are teenagers, many of whom have self-esteem issues and publicly pointing the finger at them does nothing to make them feel better about themselves. Is it so hard to ask the people you use for permission? Or if it's impossible to get permission, does the quality of your article suffer from removing the names? And perhaps it does not matter what the law says after all, because at the end of the day it should simply be a matter of respect.


*Please note: Illustrations of libel are obviously fictitious, if I tried to pass them off otherwise they'd be . . . libel!

Editor's Note: I'd like to thank Giggler01 for tackling this difficult issue. Libel is something that is hard to understand, and even more difficult to legally prove. If you have any more questions regarding the subject, please email me and I will do my best to clarify. As far as using another citizen's image (avatar) in an article, it is the Times' policy to ask permission; this is especially important when you will be using the image in a negative manner (for example, as a "not to do" for fashion) or if you are using it in a comic (where you are portraying a citizen as fictionally saying and doing something).

The times this rule does not apply are when someone is nominated for Whyvillian in the Spotlight, or you are interviewing someone. For Whyvillian in the Spotlight, it is because it should be a surprise when someone receives that recognition, and their image is only being used to show Whyville who they are, not as a critique. For an interview, you've already gained permission from that person to use them in your article, so showing their avatar is again, just allowing the readers to see who it is you are interviewing. City Records are public knowledge, so anyone can see your avatar whenever they please. Therefore, it can be in the Times without your permission, as long as it is not in a negative light or presenting you in a fictional manner. Again, if you ever have any questions, don't hestiate to ask!


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