Friday, September 18, 2009

Slander

There's an old saying about speaking ill of others:
Before you criticize someone, you should walk a mile in their shoes. That way, when you criticize them, you’re a mile away and you have their shoes.
Back on June 17th I was accused of libel, although I did not learn about this until much later. A woman sent an e-mail two two other women that included the following paragraph:
[name1], Thaught you and [name2] might find this interesting. David VS is either accusing you or [name2] of sheep stealing this is from his public blog. DVS is also in the dark and as always get things wrong. This is slander at best.
The blog post in question contained these perhaps guilty two sentences.
Third, one member was secretly and actively planting division. She followed Ephraimite theology and convinced three other families to join her "camp" within the congregation.
I wondered if my accuser had a valid point. So I read about the legalities of libel and slander, since I knew little about them.

According to that information, my blog post had no libel, because of three valid defenses.

First, my statements were true and made in good faith. The woman I wrote about did act as I described.

Second, I can claim qualified privilege with no malicious intent. I was publishing news about an event that affected the community. There was public interest from many confused people (most notably the many folk who were used to joining the local Messianic Jewish congregation annually for a Pesach seder, and the many pastors with whom I work and pray).

Third, I was writing a reasonable, fair comment on a matter of public interest. I was among the leadership of an organization answering, as best and tactfully as I could, the questions that many people were already asking. It would be unfair to the community if none of Sar Shalom's leaders related what happened.

I did learn something from the exchange. In this case I did not write about the motives of the woman who planted division. But were I to ever write about someone's motives on a future occasion then I should definitely qualify such conjecture with "I think..." to make crystal clear what is my conjecture and opinion as opposed to factual assertion.

Note that my accuser has none of these valid defenses. I'm certainly not a lawyer, but it appears to me that she was engaging in libel when she sent that e-mail.

I'm writing this essay now for a few reasons.

First, I expect it is actually quite common for people unaware their own guilt and legal liability for defamation to criticize religious leaders who are actually innocent. It may be something my pastor friends who read this blog have hurt feelings about. The upcoming Days of Awe are an appropriate time to speak with people and clear the air.

Second, I think the sender of that e-mail still reads this blog and I want to urge her to refrain from such risky behavior. I want good for her family, and I would be saddened if I heard in the future that she faced trouble because she made a different false accusation of criminal activity to someone less forgiving.

Third, I should affirm that I have no hurt feelings and am quick to forgive. During these Days of Awe the sender of that e-mail is saved a phone call. :-) (However, my trust in the sender of that e-mail is now zero.)

Finally, I have no idea what "This is slander at best" might refer to and so the phrase seems funny to me. Let's brainstorm! What other crime could I have possibly been committing? Proclaiming a fatwā death sentence? Calling for a mob with pitchforks? Releasing the assassin hamsters of doom?

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

First of All you are quoting a private e-mail that was a concern of that women that friends were being accused of stealing people.

Second of all the slander is you keep writing publicly about people who do not want to be in your blogs . Stop and face it Sar Shalom and P'nei Adonai is a Failure. There is a Messianic community here that is flourishing and you are just out of the loop.

David V.S. said...

Hi again,

Did you read the Wikipedia page I linked to? You're completely missing the point.

Yes, the way most people speak an e-mail like that is "private". But legally that's public discourse. What any of us say in e-mail could lead to a libel lawsuit.

Since I expect many people don't realize that, I wrote this blog post as a general warning. It also seemed to fit the High Holy Day theme of avoiding evil speech.

In my mind the big issue is not who is acting rude or socially inappropriate. The big issue is who is being criminal. I'm happy to be rude if it causes someone to stop being criminal.

If I have committed the legally defined crime of libel, please show me where. On the other hand, if I am innocent of libel then your continuing to falsely accuse me of a crime probably is libel.

David V.S. said...

Last night I thought of an example that might help...

Imagine that almost no one knows what a "speed limit" is. But everyone still knows the word "speeding". When learning to drive a car the friend or relative who was teaching them said something like "Speeding is going too fast. You're speeding if you are drive so fast that you would not have time to react well if a vehicle you were passing vehicles or someone on the sidewalk did something unpredictable."

In that scenario, all those drivers would drive fairly safely. But they would sometimes break the law without realizing it.

Wouldn't it be worth a blog post to inform them how speeding is actually defined?

Who would want to see people get in trouble for making a mistake in ignorance?

David V.S. said...

I thought of one more important point: you are confusing private with personal.

If I was to send you an e-mail, intended only for you, it would be personal.

But it's not private. My internet service provider, your internet service provider, my e-mail provider, your e-mail provider, and perhaps someone at Echelon would all see and probably archive it as it transmitted.

I could almost paraphrase my blog post as, "be careful if you are used to treating personal conversation as private conversation".