Media Libel or Slander

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Media Libel or Slander

On the word of the supposed victim, a friend was recently arrested and charged with (non-violent) crime, unseen by the arresting officers. That evening, a local TV station reported the incident, stating that my friend “did” what he was arrested for, never once using the word “alleged.” Isn’t this a breach of Defamation Laws? What happened to “innocent until proven guilty”?

Asked on May 4, 2009 under Criminal Law, California

Answers:

FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney / FreeAdvice Contributing Attorney

Answered 12 years ago | Contributor

Defamation -- including libel or slander -- is a civil wrong known as a tort, for which a person can sue and recover any actual damages and punitive damages. It is based on common law, usually not a statute for which there are criminal penalties fr violation.

To establish defamation the person suing must prove the actual statement made was in fact false. In addition, depending on who the person was (for example was the person a "public figure"?) it may be necessary for the plaintiff to prove the statement was made with actual malice.

Most newspapers and TV shows and staffers know the law, and are usually very careful. They need not say "alleged" but often couch arrest stories in terms of "charges", "claims," "victim says," "charges state," "faces," etc. Check the transcripts and you'll probably see those words were used.

But lets suppose your buddy was wholly innocent and the arrest was based on bogus information. The legal costs of bringing a case for slander or libel would still be so large that unless your buddy is a movie star who a lawyer might represent on a contingency fee basis (for the "fame" and PR it gives him/her) or has his or her career destroyed by the libel (vs. the arrest), the legal fee a qualified lawyer would demand upfront to bring a suit would usually be greater than any likely recovery.


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