Libel laws and the news climate

I wrote this story for my JRN 430 class in February 2011.

In the last few months, the sometimes intense language of politicians has been brought to attention. However, some experts say a change in libel laws will not necessarily help the situation.

While expanding the breadth of the law would help to soften the political dialogue, it would hurt the functioning of a free-speech democracy, said Joan W. Howarth, Dean of the Michigan State University College of Law. Howarth said that the “solution” would be worse than the current predicament.

“A democracy does not function well when people know that they can be punished for criticizing the powerful,” said Howarth. She adds that some states have great protection of free speech, while others could stand to improve.

Cooley Law School student Monica Jewell agrees. Jewell said, while the statements of politicians can get vicious, changing libel laws would not be the way to go about helping the situation. Like Howarth, she worries that a change in libel laws would dangerously challenge free speech rights, along with adding messy lawsuits to the campaigning system.

“You have to remember that while freedom of the press is powerful and false statements regarding a person can cause damage that freedom of speech is just as valued in our system,” said Jewell. “Political candidates, and politicians chose to be in the spotlight to face good and bad media. Typically they are much more equipped to respond to any allegations as well. Yet even they can recover for those purposefully and maliciously defaming them.” Jewell believes that the only way to change the current political climate is for politicians themselves to agree to act in a more civil and professional manner.

But, despite the recent interest in political discourse, Devin Schindler said this unpleasantness is nothing new.

“Lots of history here, but remember 200 years ago Burr shot Hamilton over political differences.  The “political environment” doesn’t get much more hateful than that,” said Schindler, an Associate Professor at Cooley Law School and a former partner at Warner, Norcross & Judd in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Schindler, who tried a lot of libel and defamation suits before becoming a professor, adds that he favors “less rigorous” application of libel laws. This is in part because the difference between a public and a private figure has become so imprecise in today’s society.

“Part of the theory of distinguishing between “public” and “private” figures is that public figures traditionally have access to media, making it possible to “tell their side of the story,” said Schindler. “Given the internet, Twitter, Blogs, etc, doesn’t everyone essentially have access to the marketplace of ideas?”

Howarth agrees that the line between public and private is changing and becoming blurrier. However, she thinks that the distinction between the two still makes sense. Private individuals need to have information about public officials in order to have an informed democracy, but the lives of private individuals are not as important to that purpose, Howarth said.

Those who have placed themselves in a public position should have looser guidelines than those who were not expecting to be in that position, Jewell said.

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