Trump: 'Libel' Laws a Disgrace
Libel booked its way to the top of our lookups on January 10, 2017, following assertions made by President Donald Trump that our nation’s libel laws were perhaps in need of an overhaul.
President Donald Trump said his administration is taking a look at the nation’s libel laws, calling the current laws “a sham and a disgrace.”
— Associated Press (ap.com), 10 Jan. 2017
As anyone who has ever enrolled in an introductory journalism class (or seen a movie in which a grizzled old newspaper editor has more than 30 seconds of screen time) knows, there is a difference between libel and slander. This difference is very convenient, insofar as it may be summed up rather succinctly: “Libel is written; slander is spoken.” What is less convenient, and not so often commented on, about this explanation is that it is not entirely true.
Our definitions of libel include (among others) both of the following senses:
a written statement in which a plaintiff in certain courts sets forth the cause of action or the relief sought.
a written or oral defamatory statement or representation that conveys an unjustly unfavorable impression.
Enough people have used the word (in non-judicial use) to refer to oral statements that this sense has entered our language; our legal definition is slightly narrower, stressing that it is “a defamatory statement or representation especially in the form of written or printed words.”
Both libel and slander have been in English use since the 13th century, showing that no matter how many laws we pass the matter of making defamatory statements is not one that is likely to go away any time soon.