|FINDING LIMITS IN CYBERSPACE|
Online, does everything go?
September 8, 1997
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Questions answered in this forum: Will independent cyberjournalists have access to political sources? Shouldn't cybernauts just trust their own judgement? Could newsgroup posts be considered libelous? Could libel suits squelch freedom of speech online? Should libel laws be updated to reflect the digital age? Viewer comments on online credibility
August 28, 1997
The NewsHour reports on questionable news on the 'Net.
December 25, 1996
A panel discussion on how the Internet fared in 1996.
Browse the Online NewsHour's coverage of cyberspace and law.
The U.C.L.A Online Institute for Cyberspace Law and Policy.
The Online NewsHour asks:
Do you think the treat of libel suits will squelch free speech on the Internet?
Prof. Margaret Jane Radin responds:
Well, in the "real world" libel suits are intended to squelch free speech to some extent--i.e., to the extent free speech consists of false statements of fact that injure someone's reputation. In the "real word" more leeway is given to free speech if the injured person is a public figure; then the statement isn't libelous unless made with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard of whether it's true or not. I imagine libel law on the Net should work the same way.
The main worry about free speech for the Net in connection with libel suits is the chilling effect that would arise if the online service providers (e.g., AOL, Prodigy) are held liable along with the subscriber posting the message. If services like AOL are going to liable for defamation, then the worry is they will exercise self-help and censor all the messages that people post to their service, and delete any mesages that they have any fear will turn out to be defamatory. A portion of the Communications Decency Act that was not struck down appears to immunize from liability any service provider who in good faith cancels or deletes posts that it judges inappropriate.
If all service providers adopt these self-help procedures to avoid liability for defamation, then there may well be a chilling effect on free speech. However, I expect there will be some service providers who don't edit or censor at all, and who rely on the fact that they don't edit at all (and in some cases, technically cannot edit at all) to shield them from liability. I also expect that insurance against defamation suits will become available (as it is for the newspaper and broadcasting industries) and will be purchased by any service providers who fear liability, and the cost passed on to consumers. In which case, free speech will be less deterred by the fear of libel suits, though it may still be deterred by the increased cost of Internet access.
With respect to Web site ratings, I don't think they'll be a substitute for courts, although (when the bugs get worked out) they may be valuable. Self-rating has problems, and so do all the other methods of rating--but I don't have space to go into the problems right now.Steve Geimann of the Society of Professional Journalists responds:
I would hope that freedom of expression and thought would thrive more than ever in cyberspace and that those who make irresponsible and unsubstantial statements about other individuals would realize there are risks when they abandon facts. Truth has always been the best defense in any libel case, and I think that will be true in cyberspace too. Those who write (speak) the truth should not fear participating in an online discussion or debate. I fear, however, that the first person to be falsely attacked in cyberspace will seek the maximum protection possible, to prevent a repetition. If the Internet is viewed as an extension of conversation, we may have to worry about how such "private" conversations are protected. I don't know how the courts will figure out the difference between what I "say" to you, and what I "post" to you and countless thousands around the world. It would seem the greater reach would bring with it greater responsibility for what is "said."
Should libel laws be changed to reflect the digital age?