With the advent of
the Internet, an entirely new realm of libel law has emerged in the courts,
forcing judges to examine entirely new questions of Internet vigilantism and
how to deal with crimes in a digital world.
Defamation, 20 N.C. Index 4th Libel and Slander § 1,
includes the two separate torts of libel and slander. This blog will focus
specifically on the libel associated with Walter Palmer and Cecil the Lion.
changing application of libel law and its possible effects on Internet users is
exemplified with the recent death of Cecil
the Lion, a beloved lion in Zimbabwe who was the victim of a big game hunt.
The hunter responsible for his death, Walter Palmer, is a dentist from
Minnesota who is the latest victim of Internet vigilantism. Cecil the Lion fans
have flooded his Yelp page with negative reviews and threats, forcing him to shut
down his dental practice and hire
security for his home because of death threats. At this time, Palmer has
not been found to have done anything illegal according to American
jurisprudence, but the Internet public has taken it upon themselves to
punish Palmer for his actions.
nay-sayers are clearly exercising their First Amendment right to freedom of
speech by giving their opinion of Palmer as both a dentist and a human being.
However, this blog will explore whether or not these posters have gone too far.
Is there a certain limit past which the First Amendment can no longer protect
you? Is there any sort of protection to those who are libeled on the Internet?
At what point does an opinion on an Internet site become libelous? These are
all questions that have not yet been answered by the courts.
Libel Law and Internet Application
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S.
254 (1964), the Supreme Court made it abundantly clear that the First Amendment
should be afforded a lenient interpretation so that the national discussion
could be “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.” 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1927)(stating
that there is a national commitment to free public debate). However, in Rosenblatt
v. Baer, it was asserted that a person has the right to protect one’s name and
that “society has a pervasive and strong interest in preventing and redressing
attacks upon reputation.” 383 U.S. 75, 86 (1966)(explaining that important
societal values underlie the law of defamation).
an injury to reputation is not enough to merit a removal of First Amendment
Those who, by reason of the notoriety of their achievements or
the vigor and success with which they seek the public’s attention are properly
classed as public figures . . . may recover for injury to reputation only on
clear and convincing proof that the defamatory falsehood was made with
knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth.
v. Robert Welch, Inc., 94 S.Ct.
2997, 3008 (1974).
According to Minnesota law, libel is defined as “a defamatory statement, published to third parties, and which
the speaker or publisher knew or should have known was false.” In this case, to
find libel there must be an injury to Palmer’s reputation.
Despite this heightened standard for public figures,
Palmer could still sue for defamation by showing that: 1) the statements were
false; 2) the Internet posters and bloggers were at fault for not ascertaining
the truth; and 3) there was actual malice by the posters and bloggers. See New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S.
Application of Libel
Law for Dr. Palmer
Given Palmer’s notoriety created because of
the national press about his hunting of Cecil the Lion, which continues months
after the lion’s death, it seems that Palmer would be considered a public
figure. Further, the vitriolic responses
on his Yelp page, some of which allude to horrible service by Palmer as a dentist, suggest that
there has been injury to his reputation.
Clearly these statements were false, meeting
the first factor. A court could find that the first factor was met by certain Yelp posts that allude to Palmer cutting patients’ throats during routine procedures
and threaten to murder him, as well as Tweets that call him an “environmental
terrorist”. Since Palmer is neither
a murderer nor a terrorist, these statements are false. The posts meet the
second factor, fault for not ascertaining the truth, as the posts written in
first person narrative, and it is obvious that Dr. Palmer did not kill his
patients. Since the patients know that they were not killed by Palmer, they are
at fault for not ascertaining the truth. These harsh posts also prove the third
factor under New York Times, actual
malice, because their intention was to ruin his future business as evidenced by
their publication on his Yelp page, which is usually used for reviews of
businesses. Thus, since all three New
York Times factors are met, it seems that courts could find the Internet
defendants guilty of libel.
Cecil’s roar, once heard on the African
savannah, can now be heard through the keyboards of thousands of outraged
animal activists. Although the Internet creates some difficulties in determining
potential claimants and liable parties and presents a host of jurisdictional
issues, the core doctrine of defamation and First Amendment protection still
exists. The fast moving nature of our digital age and the ease at which
libelous material can be disseminated makes this issue all the more pressing. In
applying the factors to determine defamation, it seems that many of these Internet
users could be legally liable for their statements against Palmer.
Posted by Elizabeth A. Kapopoulos on Mon. February 29, 2016 3:26 PM
Court Rulings, Freedom of Speech, Social Media