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The Hazards of Libel – How You Write Counts

September 26, 2011

What is libel? According to Webster’s, libel refers to “a written or spoken statement or a representation that gives an unjustly unfavorable impression of a person or thing,” or the act of producing such a statement or representation.

How do we draw the line between libel and opinion? Frequently, this boils down to the copy editing. A carelessly attributed statement here or an improper tone there, and you could overstep the line into libel, an act with potentially criminal implications.

The trick is that an unjust statement presented as fact is potentially libelous, but an expression of opinion is not. Opinion is generally protected under free speech. Negative opinions can be written off as slander, but that’s a whole separate issue.

In grammar school, we teach students not to write “In my opinion,…” in their essays. We tell them the readers will know that their statements are opinion and it’s not necessary to constantly state as such. In truth however, it can be difficult to tell where reporting evidence ends and stating opinions begins. It’s often the copy editor’s job — as a fresh pair of eyes who doesn’t know the author’s intention before reading the text — to make sure the difference is easy to distinguish and protect the author from unwarranted accusations!

Check out this link for an overview of how libel can work its way into your writing: http://www.copyediting.com/Article.php?art_num=4502

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From → Writing Style

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