“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” While this popular quote is normally attributed to Voltaire, it refers to what Evelyn Hall thought Voltaire’s attitude would have been in response to the condemnation of the Claude-Adrien Helvétius’s controversial work by the Parlement de Paris and by the Collège de Sorbonne. This is an extreme approach to defending the fundamental right to speech, but that right should not abridge on the rights of others. Indeed, the law and the Constitution, even in a free country like the United States, do not protect all types of speech. For example, defamation or libel cannot be protected.
The flood of defaming articles that has invaded the Lebanese press and social media is nothing but a manifestation of what is better known as yellow journalism or ‘presstitution.’ Without any research and reliable facts, people have bombarded the public with unfounded, unsubstantiated, and damaging claims. To better understand the fine line between the fundamental right to speech and defamation, the LACD media team reached out to Joey Chbeir, an attorney in the United States whose doctoral thesis has focused on constitutional protection to civil liberties.
LACD Media: Mr. Chbeir, as it is very well known, the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution pertains to the freedom of speech. Could you please explain to us the extent of this right?
J.C.: There is no doubt that the United States of America remains the beacon of freedom to most democracies and the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution mandates for Congress to “make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances….” The United States Supreme Court has creatively interpreted the First Amendment and created an extensive body of law, but not every speech is protected. The law will protect your opinion, your thoughts, and your recitation of true facts. However, the law will not protect someone claiming, without any basis to the story, that a minister stole or was paid an $800 million in commissions or someone finances terrorist activities. The First Amendment does not protect speech that leads to illegal activity, imminent violence, obscenity, defamation, or libel.
LACD Media: Does Freedom of speech protect defamation of character?
J.C.: Freedom of speech will always protect an opinion, but not false and damaging statements that harm the reputation of an individual, group, or a business. As such, a defamation lawsuit will be generally lost if the defendant can prove that the statement he or she made is true or if the statement is a true expression of an opinion (and not facts). That second category entails a long analysis to determine whether the opinion is protected under the First Amendment. At any rate, in some cases and without proving any damages, a plaintiff can recover from a defendant if he/she simply proves that the defendant made a statement that involves one of the following four categories: (1) accusing the plaintiff of a crime, (2) claiming that the plaintiff has a loathsome disease, (3) accusing the plaintiff of a trait that would adversely reflect on his or her fitness to conduct business or trade, or (4) imputing serious sexual misconduct. Again, the truth is always a good defense.
LACD Media: So, journalists can say “I don’t approve of/like this politician” but cannot falsely state “This politician supports a terrorist organization?”
J.C.: Exactly. Freedom of speech allows people to express their opinion or their approval of people and/or laws, but it does not give them a carte blanche to convey false information as facts. This can be grounds for a legitimate lawsuit. My advice to all journalists, reporters, bloggers, and analysts is to check their sources and verify their information before publishing it. Several years ago, an American/Lebanese blogger was sued for accusing another fellow American/Lebanese of supporting a terrorist organization. Despite the blogger’s claim to a constitutional right, which would normally preempt any law, the Court found that the blogger’s statements were defamatory and the jury awarded the plaintiff $90,000.
LACD Media: Thank you.
LACD Media Coordinator