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Sunday, January 27, 2008

On defamation

Think you’re a defender of free speech? How far are you willing to go?

Everyone seems to agree that defamation laws and libel chill can be a threat to free speech, but nobody seems prepared to call for an end to these laws.

Well almost nobody. Some libertarian free speech advocates have challenged the integrity of defamation and libel laws. Their argument goes like this:


4.2. Defamation and libel

Most commentators have argued that one has a legitimate ownership right to one’s reputation. But this is not so. For the simple reason that one’s reputation consists of the thoughts of other people. That is, A’s reputation consists solely of the thoughts of B, C, D, and B’s reputation of those of A, C, D . . . etc. But since no one can own the thoughts of other people, one cannot, paradoxically, own one’s own reputation.

While there can be no universal right to one’s reputation, and libel and defamation do not constitute exploitation per se, the right of a person to engage in libellous or defamatory action is not unrestricted. For while everyone has an unrestricted right concerning his thoughts, the right of free speech is not absolute. For example, no one has the right to tell another person ‘unless you hand over to me your wallet, I’ll shoot you.’ This sort of speech would be strictly forbidden in a private property society. It is a threat to engage in initiatory violence. As well, no one, including any of my detractors, has a right to come to my living room to give me a speech or tell me what he thinks about me and when I tell him to leave object on the ground of his right to freedom of speech. A trespasser has no free speech rights whatsoever – on my property. Free speech rights, so called, are really but an instance of private property rights. I can say anything I want on my property and so can anyone else, including any libellous person, on his own property.


Walter Block, the co-author of this essay, dedicates a chapter to this subject in his book Defending the Undefendable. Frederick Hayek called the book “a real service”.


If you don’t oppose defamation laws in principle, can you really condemn those who use these laws to protect their reputations from harm?

Posted by Matthew Johnston on January 27, 2008 | Permalink


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Matthew: "If you don’t oppose defamation laws in principle, can you really condemn those to use these laws to protect their reputations from harm?"

No, but you can condemn those who use defamation laws and the legal system to try to supress speech that is not defamatory. It's like being outraged when someone sues a drycleaner for $67 million for losing a pair of pants or when someone sues for $2.9 million after spilling hot coffee on herself. It's not that I don't think that liability laws are legitimate. It is just that thinking the laws are legitimate is different from thining any (ab)use of them is.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-01-27 3:35:59 PM

What I find truly comical is how Ezra uses the law when he wants and ignores it at other times.
He threatened an injunction against dustmybroom.com over some alleged republished defamation from a letter written to Fast Forward. However when Ezra was requested to remove defamtion of Syed Sohawrdy from www.ezralevant.com he says its fair comment and there is no Alberta law to make him take it down,yet he threatens a injunctuon against dustmybroom.com????? what the heck?????
The reality of the threat can be found on dustmyroom.com. Just look in archives over the past few weeks.
This really amazes me...

Posted by: Merle | 2008-01-27 5:20:13 PM

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