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Libel Suits OK Even If Libel Is Truthful 301

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the tap-dancing-on-the-slippery-slope dept.
Defeat Globalism writes to tell us that many journalists, bloggers, and media law specialists are concerned about a new ruling by a US Court of Appeals in Boston. The new ruling is allowing a former Staples employee to sue the company for libel after an email was sent out informing other employees that he had been fired for violations of company procedures regarding expense reimbursements. "Staples has asked the full appeals court to reconsider the ruling, and 51 news organizations have filed a friend-of-the-court brief saying that the decision, if allowed to stand, 'will create a precedent that hinders the media's ability to rely on truthful publication to avoid defamation liability.' But Wendy Sibbison, the Greenfield appellate lawyer for the fired Staples employee, Alan S. Noonan, said the ruling applies only to lawsuits by private figures against private defendants, that is, defendants not involved in the news business, over purely private matters."
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Libel Suits OK Even If Libel Is Truthful

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  • Meh (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anenome (1250374)
    Hardly news, since this'll certainly be struck down \ overturned in future rulings. Trying to protect employees can go too far and become ridiculous.
    • Re:Meh (Score:5, Insightful)

      by The Grim Reefer2 (1195989) on Friday March 13, 2009 @02:55PM (#27184399)

      Hardly news, since this'll certainly be struck down \ overturned in future rulings.

      We can only hope.

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by interkin3tic (1469267)

      Hardly news, since this'll certainly be struck down \ overturned in future rulings.

      Most punditry is wrong, according to at least one scientific paper, most scientific papers are wrong, most current event news items will become irrelevant and or not current within a day. You're saying this isn't news because it will be overruled eventually? That to me doesn't make it not news, that makes it more like the other news stories.

    • Re:Meh (Score:5, Informative)

      by FiniteElementalist (1073824) on Friday March 13, 2009 @03:02PM (#27184519)

      Looking at the article, it looks like it is even less news because the ruling is based entirely on an obscure Massachusetts state law, which would only apply to those in Massachusetts even if it was not overturned. And that law has the requirement of demonstrating "actual malice", which probably will fall flat rather quick.

      This might be a bad ruling, but it seems like it is rather limited in scope and likely to be overturned regardless.

      • Re:Meh (Score:5, Insightful)

        by ari_j (90255) on Friday March 13, 2009 @03:11PM (#27184625)

        This is completely, totally, 100% non-news. It's not even a bad ruling. Here is the case timeline in a nutshell:

        1. Employee files lawsuit alleging libel based on a statement made about him
        2. Trial court dismisses the case without considering the truth of any of the employee's allegations, because even if they are all true, there is no cause of action for libel when the alleged defaming statement was true
        3. Court of Appeals reverses the dismissal based on a Massachusetts law that gives you a cause of action for libel even if the statement was true, if it was made with actual malice
        4. Next step: The trial court must consider whether the employee alleged actual malice and, if not, may either dismiss the case or allow the employee to amend his complaint to include the actual malice allegation. After that, the case can proceed and the court can decide, based on evidence, whether there was actual malice.

        The key point is that the trial court here has not considered any evidence yet. It made a purely legal ruling under Massachusetts law, and it was wrong because it failed to take into account the actual malice law. The media uproar is just panic, and there is no need and likely no reason for this decision to be overturned.

        The second key point is that the employee has not won the case just because of this ruling. He has a long way to go ahead of him.

        • by Geoffrey.landis (926948) on Friday March 13, 2009 @03:50PM (#27185181) Homepage

          The key point is that the trial court here has not considered any evidence yet. It made a purely legal ruling under Massachusetts law, and it was wrong because it failed to take into account the actual malice law.

          No, the key point is that the legal principle that truth is an absolute defense against a charge of libel is under attack in Massachusetts.

          This principle is one of the bedrocks upon which our freedom of speech is built.

          You're right that it's not a bad ruling. It's a terrible ruling.

          • by greenreaper (205818) on Friday March 13, 2009 @04:03PM (#27185397) Homepage Journal
            Well, it's more that the law is terrible than the ruling, though I don't know if the judge has the power to set aside such law in this case.
          • by Kell Bengal (711123) on Friday March 13, 2009 @04:52PM (#27186059)
            I can't speak for the US, but in Australia to use the defense that an otherwise libelous statement is true it must also be shown to be in the public interest to disseminate. For example, if you have evidence to say that a public figure takes drugs, you could argue that it's important to bring to the attention of the general public. If you had evidence to say that a private citizen is a bastard, while true, it isn't clearly in the public interest and it could be held to be libelous.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by shaitand (626655)

            The truth should not be absolute defense against a charge of libel when confidentiality is at issue.

            The problem isn't what they said about him, the problem is that the employee has a right to confidentiality that the company has an obligation to protect and the company violated that confidentiality. A company should not be telling the other staff or other companies anything beyond employment verification. In that case he already divulged that a relationship existed and the company is merely confirming that.

            • I can see a useful principle of "employee confidentiality", appropriately delineated. But that seems like a separate issue from libel, and should be covered by a separate statute, with violations being prosecuted as "violation of employee confidentiality", not as "libel".

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by sumdumass (711423)

            Geoffrey Landis is a liar that often writes and tells stories that never happened. He has lots of works that are nothing but fictional. He even claims to own race horses when he doesn't. [sff.net]

            Now it is true that you write Scifi and tell stories that transcends mental acuity right? So did I just tell the truth or did I attempt to maliciously smear your name? You did write that " I do have a horse or two in both of the races" didn't you?

            The problem is that the truth is often a rendition of fact or an opinion to be

        • Re:Meh (Score:5, Interesting)

          by mabhatter654 (561290) on Friday March 13, 2009 @04:06PM (#27185447)

          I think it will stick.

          Terms of a person's firing are almost always non-public. A company as large as Staples can't publish to ALL it's employees that they fired Bob over $5.00 misappropriated on an expense report. That's malicious. It's appropriate to say we will (and have) terminated over expense reports being wrong without giving the offenders name.

          I can't think of any company I've worked at that's attached names to memos like that. Even companies that actually call the cops on somebody don't typically inform the employees of the person's name, or particular details of the infraction beyond the company "rule book" for just this reason.

          • by SignalFreq (580297) on Friday March 13, 2009 @04:20PM (#27185619)

            I think it will stick.

            Terms of a person's firing are almost always non-public. A company as large as Staples can't publish to ALL it's employees that they fired Bob over $5.00 misappropriated on an expense report. That's malicious. It's appropriate to say we will (and have) terminated over expense reports being wrong without giving the offenders name.

            I can't think of any company I've worked at that's attached names to memos like that. Even companies that actually call the cops on somebody don't typically inform the employees of the person's name, or particular details of the infraction beyond the company "rule book" for just this reason.

            Added bold for emphasis. This whole thing seems like it should be a "public disclosure of private facts" suit, not a Libel suit.

            http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamation [wikipedia.org]

            In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel, slander, and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a false claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. Slander refers to a malicious, false and defamatory spoken statement or report, while libel refers to any other form of communication such as written words or images. Most jurisdictions allow legal actions, civil and/or criminal, to deter various kinds of defamation and retaliate against groundless criticism. Related to defamation is public disclosure of private facts, which arises where one person reveals information that is not of public concern, and the release of which would offend a reasonable person.

            "Unlike libel, truth is not a defense for invasion of privacy."

            • by Estanislao Martínez (203477) on Friday March 13, 2009 @04:58PM (#27186133) Homepage

              The law is different in every state, and even often within different counties of the same state. You cannot apply Wikipedia's definitions of crimes and torts to cases that are being disputed under the law of one specific jurisdiction, because there's a very good chance that the definitions and case law is not the same.

              Wikipedia's definitions of crimes and torts are a usually a sort of lowest common denominator to help you understand the overall landscape of what general types of acts jurisdictions treat as crimes or torts; so, yes, jurisdictions normally have laws that deal with the public disclosure of private facts. The precise classification is always jurisdiction-specific; some jursidictions might have a separate tort or offense for it, some might treat it as one subcase of other offenses.

      • Re:Meh (Score:5, Insightful)

        by joe_bruin (266648) on Friday March 13, 2009 @04:21PM (#27185625) Homepage Journal

        This is yet another story by our friend "Anti-Globalism" (or "Defeat Globalism" in this case). Note the website the name links to (amerika.org). If you follow it, you'll reach a network of nationalist, anti-foreigner, and eventually racist (neo-Nazi / white power / religious hate), anti-democratic sites. The idea is to start you off with something that will get your nerd-rage going. "How dare those judges redefine libel". Then you'll go to a site that builds on that, but broadens the idea. "It's the Massachusetts liberal activist judges trying to take away our Libertarian freedom". Then it's a few more hops to full on "The Blacks, Jews, Mexicans, white-man hating Liberals are trying to take away our freedoms and give them to urban unwed teenage drug moms on welfare".

        You can safely ignore this story.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by shaitand (626655)

        exactly. Not only that, but at least in this instance it is just. Employers should be liable to suit if they trash former employees to their other staff or to future employers. Even on a pre-employment call the previous employer should not be saying anything other than whether employment happened, dates, and salary.

        In fact, that has been the policy at every major company I've worked with. A company trashing an employee after the fact can literally destroy someone's life. The same is not likely true the othe

  • by qoncept (599709) on Friday March 13, 2009 @02:50PM (#27184291) Homepage
    I don't see how telling people a guy did something wrong when he did could possibly be illegal, but why would they even do that? It's no one else's business. Sure, the word would probably get out anyway, but the company has nothing to gain by disseminating this kind of information.
    • by MightyMartian (840721) on Friday March 13, 2009 @02:51PM (#27184317) Journal

      Maybe it's nobody's business, but the fact is that if it isn't a lie, and the company didn't sign an NDA, then it shouldn't be permissible to claim you were libeled.

    • by DrLang21 (900992) on Friday March 13, 2009 @02:56PM (#27184429)
      It's hard to say. There may have been a lot of inter-office controversy and rumors surrounding the employee's termination and the company felt that for the sake of preventing drama, they needed to set the story straight. Or it may have just been a rash unethical decision by an HR rep. But either way, I don't see why it would be considered libel. I hope that Staples appeals the case.
    • by eleuthero (812560) on Friday March 13, 2009 @02:57PM (#27184437)
      The company has a lot to gain from this. If I were to steal something and then was caught. It would be reasonable for my company to trumpet this to all other employees along the lines of "make an example of him"

      The reasoning does go deeper than just "let's gig 'em" but can include the idea that you want your employees to feel safe--"we catch criminals and can now trust those who remain"

      I do not know the reasoning behind Staples' decision to broadcast the reason why, but it is more likely the first than the second. I would hope it is both. People are imperfect and we need reminders from time to time to stay on track (hopefully not often at the level of the Staple's employee but sometimes even this is appropriate).

      The main reason I approve of Staples' action is with regard to references. If my friend leaves the company telling me he just got sick of the management when in fact he was stealing and then asks me for a reference at Company X where I have a friend, I need to know that he was really fired for theft or I risk losing my friend's good will.

      • Re: (Score:2, Flamebait)

        In the retail environment, everybody already knows everybody else's business. It was foolish and excessive to mention the salesman by name. Anybody who wanted to know could easily find out. Professional organizations have methods to deal with dishonesty, and humiliation shouldn't be one of them, no matter how truthful it may be.

        Would it have really been that difficult to just respond like, "He is no longer with us. No comment...in other news, employees should not falsify or abuse their expense accounts.
        • by lgw (121541) on Friday March 13, 2009 @03:50PM (#27185189) Journal

          If you wronged me (and I have proof, such as a judgement), then it's totally appropriate for me to tell others about this. Call it humiliation if you like, that doesn't make it wrong. You don't get a free pass to a good reputation! Don't want to be known as a thief? Here's a hint: don't steal!

          • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

            Understandable, but to play devil's advocate again:

            Any HR department would have to mention the employee by name as part of the motions of taking internal action, but the e-mail was sent to 1500 employees!

            I'm betting on the defendant using the "maybe not totally wrong, but very excessive and unprofessional" defense.
          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Yvanhoe (564877)
            hint to the hint : don't steal from people with a legal department. It is still okay to steal from poor and defenseless people.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by rolfwind (528248)

      It's no one else's business. Sure, the word would probably get out anyway, but the company has nothing to gain by disseminating this kind of information.

      Perhaps he was a good performing salesmen but was taking too much from the company trough, and this was their warning to others?

      You are making as if this was a private matter, like something someone does at home or a student's grades at school (also debateable), I just don't see it that way.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ChrisGilliard (913445)
      ...the company has nothing to gain by disseminating this kind of information.

      I would imagine it would be a deterrent to other employees regarding "violations of company procedures regarding expenses reimbursements". So that might be the reason for disseminating the info.
    • Oh really (Score:2, Insightful)

      by hurfy (735314)

      "but the company has nothing to gain by disseminating this kind of information."

      How about dissuading other employees from doing the same things?
      Seems like a pretty good reason to me. Are YOU going to do what he just got fired for??

      • by arth1 (260657)

        There is a principle in Ius Commune that everyone should be treated as innocent until PROVEN guilty. Not ACCUSED of being guilty. The difference is immense.
        That we allow companies to make their own incompatible internal laws and punish people based on them is the real problem.

        • by lgw (121541)

          Right, which is why truth is a defense in libel suits (or damn well should be). Accuse someone if somthing? Potential libel. Prove it? Not. Why is this hard?

    • Apparently, the law states that if a statement is made with malice and intent to harm (regardless of whether it is true or not), then it is libel. Just because a person with chronic halitosis and national socialist leanings has unwed parents doesn't mean you get to call him a smelly nazi bastard.
    • by sjames (1099)

      Except to provide an example that these sorts of mis-deeds WILL get you fired.

  • by Sowelu (713889) on Friday March 13, 2009 @02:54PM (#27184375)
    My non-legal, everyday-speech understanding of the term 'libel' is that it means 'a lie that harms someone's reputation'. Can someone with more legal sense give a more accurate definition?
    • by Chyeld (713439) <chyeldNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Friday March 13, 2009 @02:59PM (#27184465)

      Noonan filed a complaint that said Staples had defamed him and violated several employment agreements. US District Court Judge Morris E. Lasker dismissed the claim, writing that "truth is an absolute defense to a defamation action under Massachusetts law."

      Noonan appealed to a three-member panel for the First Circuit, which initially upheld the ruling by Lasker. But last month it reversed itself on the libel claim, saying Noonan could pursue that part of his lawsuit because of a relatively obscure 1902 state law.

      The law says truth is a defense against libel unless the plaintiff can show "actual malice" by the person publishing the statement.

      In ordinary discussions of First Amendment law, "actual malice" refers to the standard established in the landmark 1964 US Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

      In that context, it means a plaintiff who is a public figure can win a libel suit only after proving that a journalist knew a published statement was false or acted in reckless disregard for the truth.

      But in the Massachusetts law cited by the appeals court, "actual malice" means "malevolent intent or ill will," said the panel. Noonan might be able to persuade a jury that the company demonstrated ill will; Baitler had never referred to a fired employee by name in a mass e-mail before, and jurors might conclude he "singled out Noonan in order to humiliate him," the court wrote.

      Sibbison - who says her client, Noonan, was a "sloppy record keeper" but not a thief - said the ruling lets him sue a company that "violated its own policies on employee privacy" through the mass e-mail.

      Rather than wait for a lawyer, you can just read the relevant part of the article.

      • If you want to steal stuff, you shouldn't be surprised you get caught. Be happy you don't live in my world. You wouldn't go to jail. You'd just have "THIEF" tattooed on your forehead in 3" high letters.

        • by Plunky (929104)

          If you want to steal stuff, you shouldn't be surprised you get caught. Be happy you don't live in my world. You wouldn't go to jail. You'd just have "THIEF" tattooed on your forehead in 3" high letters.

          I suspect you are flirting with my girlfriend and accuse you of theft. I even plant evidence in your car and you are convicted. Welcome to the end of your life.

      • by nedlohs (1335013)

        You know your legal system is completely fucked when Judges don't even know the damn laws...

        "US District Court Judge Morris E. Lasker dismissed the claim, writing that "truth is an absolute defense to a defamation action under Massachusetts law."

        which was obviously false due to the law allowing the appeal. Since he was ruling on a libel case, you would expect the judge to try and look up the laws related to it before making such a declaration.

        So how are we non-judges supposed to know what the damn law says?

      • Rather than wait for a lawyer, you can just read the relevant part of the article.

        IANAAR*, you insensitive clod!

        *IANAAR = I Am Not An Article Reader

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by spacefiddle (620205)

        Oho, what's this?

        But in the Massachusetts law cited by the appeals court, "actual malice" means "malevolent intent or ill will," said the panel. Noonan might be able to persuade a jury that the company demonstrated ill will; Baitler had never referred to a fired employee by name in a mass e-mail before, and jurors might conclude he "singled out Noonan in order to humiliate him," the court wrote.

        Emphasis above is mine.

        Motion to tag this story with "badsummary," your honor. IANAL but maybe NYCL will stop by this thread for a visit... there are some very, very important lessons here.

        First and foremost, this situation arose because no one followed a procedure. Noonan, for whatever reason, did not do his expense reports right. He could be incompetent; he could be a thief; or he simply could have made honest mistakes and/or not realized how seriously those reports were being taken.

        Ba

    • The only thing to add really is that most definitions include the fact that it's malicious.
    • let me play devil's advocate. An internal investigation says I did something. I get canned. They let everyone know I was fired for this behavior. One problem... I didn't do it.

      Sure the company is within their rights to can me. Sure they are technically correct that that is the reason they fired me. But I didn't do it. Everyone now thinks I am a thief... or a pedophile... or whatever else.

      And this is the reason why companies should NEVER give the reason for terminating someone. Shame on the company for doing

      • let me play devil's advocate. An internal investigation says I did something. I get canned. They let everyone know I was fired for this behavior. One problem... I didn't do it.

        Except in the case of this guy being fired he did do it. So your case would be hardly analogous.

        The dispute revolves around the firing of Noonan in January 2006 as regional sales director of Staples after an internal audit determined that he had overbilled the company in expense reports, failed to submit required receipts, and falsified expense reports, according to the appeals court's Feb. 13 ruling.

        The dispute has nothing to do with the reasons he was fired, because they are true, but the fact that broadcasting them out is claimed to be defamation.

        • I'm certainly no lawyer, but it seems hard to cause defamation of character if you tell the truth. Of course, the law never actually needs to adhear to common sense.
      • by nedlohs (1335013)

        If you didn't do it then the claim was false and hence is completely irrelevant to this particular instance which is all about "if Libel is Truthful" - it's in the title, surely we haven't progresses so far as to not read them either???

  • Wendy Sibbison, the Greenfield appellate lawyer for the fired Staples employee, "There isn't a First Amendment right for a private company to broadcast the news of a private person's firing to its employees."
    --
    Yes, Wendy, but using that token, there's no first amendment right preventing a private company broadcasting the same news.

    Pesky first amendment, being all vague like that...

  • Hmmmm... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by CannonballHead (842625) on Friday March 13, 2009 @02:58PM (#27184449)

    So, can I sue various politically-driven groups for libel, even if what they say about the group I'm in is true?

  • of people are not responsible for their actions. Sorry, yeah he might have been embarrassed but still he was wrong. More than likely he told others he was leaving on his own recourse or that some PHB fired him because he was too smart, too good.

    What is it with people owning up to what they do? I thought we left behind that in elementary school, that idea that "not me" did it.

  • by XLawyer (68496) * on Friday March 13, 2009 @03:00PM (#27184475) Homepage

    It is incorrect to say that truth is an absolute defense to a claim of libel. Apparently, Massachusetts law allows a suit to go ahead based on defamatory statements that are based on "actual malice."

    Possibly Massachusetts law is incompatible with the US Constitution in this regard. I am inclined to believe it is. But Staples never brought it up--if they had, the panel would have mentioned it in at least one their opinions, and the court didn't.

    In other words, the First Amendment question simply didn't come up. The sole question was what Massachusetts law was, not whether that law was consistent with the Constitution.

    • by Hatta (162192)

      The sole question was what Massachusetts law was, not whether that law was consistent with the Constitution.

      If Massachusetts law is not consistent with the Constitution, then it is not law. Constitutionality should ALWAYS be taken into account when considering any law.

      • Constitutionality should ALWAYS be taken into account when considering any law.

        Constitutionality is usually only taken into account when one of the parties in the case makes the argument that the relevant law is unconstitutional. If Staple's lawyers didn't argue that point, the judges probably won't include it in their ruling.

        Judges usually try to refrain from ruling on matters that haven't been argued.

        • by Hatta (162192)

          Judges usually try to refrain from ruling on matters that haven't been argued.

          Refraining from issuing an unconstitutional ruling should take precedence.

          • Refraining from issuing an unconstitutional ruling should take precedence.

            Well... Yes, of course. But the point is: neither side made the argument that this law is unconstitutional. Appellate judges make judgments on issues where the two sides disagree. In this case--as neither side disputed this law's constitutionality--they really had no constitutional matter before them to adjudicate.

            Absent some really clear precedent, judges can only rule on the issues presented to them. I don't think, and the judges didn't think, that the existing precedent was strong enough to declare the l

    • by Thelasko (1196535)

      In other words, the First Amendment question simply didn't come up. The sole question was what Massachusetts law was, not whether that law was consistent with the Constitution.

      In other words, the defense attorney wasn't doing his or her job.

    • by dfm3 (830843)
      IANAL (but it appears that you are). I wonder... did this question not come up before because it would be more appropriate to raise questions about the constitutionality of a law in a higher court? Say you want to challenge this particular Massachusetts law on first amendment grounds... is it better to challenge the law on appeal than to bring up the issue in a lower court?
  • So it's only for private-vs-private?

    What happens when Staples sues you for reporting them to the Better-Business Bureau? What happens when bad reviews on Amazon become liabel?

    Its one thing if we want ot make rules about privacy, allowing a disclosure to be an invasion of said privacy; but this is a Pandora's box that I prey to his noodley goodness gets overturned.

    • by WCguru42 (1268530)

      What happens when bad reviews on Amazon become liabel?

      I can say with nearly 100% certainty that reviews will never be considered libel, mainly considering the fact that reviews are by their very nature opinion. Last I checked, libel doesn't apply to opinion, only statements asserting themselves to be fact.

  • The summary makes it seem like the court just arbitrarily decided that truth didn't count as a defense for libel in this case. But that's not at all what happened; FTFA:

    Noonan appealed to a three-member panel for the First Circuit, which initially upheld the ruling by Lasker. But last month it reversed itself on the libel claim, saying Noonan could pursue that part of his lawsuit because of a relatively obscure 1902 state law.

    The law says truth is a defense against libel unless the plaintiff can show "actu

    • by blueg3 (192743)

      Further, while the law has problems, it's not completely crazy -- you have grounds for libel if it's false or if it was done with malicious intent. That seems, on its face, reasonable.

      • I don't think it's that reasonable - I'd prefer that libel and slander laws deal exclusively with false statements, as opposed to opening the door to suing someone because they were a dick to you. Legislation that bars you from lying about people is one thing; legislation that opens you up to liability because you're not nice to them is entirely another.

        • by blueg3 (192743)

          You're addressing whether you agree with the law, not whether it is reasonable.

      • you have grounds for libel if it's false or if it was done with malicious intent.

        The problem lies on the definition of "malicious intent" and how Massachusetts diverges from the SCOTUS definition. By their definition, if a newspaper runs an article by a whistleblower regarding some shody politicians, based on true verifiable facts, with intent to expose him and make him quit and be jailed, the politician could sue the newspaper acusing the blurb of "malicious intent", since the clear intent was to put the police and public opinion against him, and send him to jail.

        • by blueg3 (192743)

          It certainly does have a number of problems, including what constitutes "malicious intent". It's just that it's not completely unreasonable -- as a law barring truthful statements from being reported would be.

        • Wrong !

          We have special rules for reporting about people of public interest, for a damn good reason. Most of them need chopping down a peg or two on a daily basis.
  • In all honesty if you are going to write an e-mail announcing someone is fired, you show say so in the most diplomatic approach and say the minimum. For example:

    "Joe Blogs is no longer part of CompanyX".

    will suffice. Everyone else is free to read between the lines.

  • Truthful libel? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by spellraiser (764337) on Friday March 13, 2009 @03:03PM (#27184529) Journal

    By its very definition [wikipedia.org], libel is always untruthful.

    In law, defamation (also called calumny, libel, slander, and vilification) is the communication of a statement that makes a false claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may give an individual, business, product, group, government or nation a negative image. Slander refers to a malicious, false and defamatory spoken statement or report, while libel refers to any other form of communication such as written words or images.

    Semantics aside, here is the actual explanation for the ruling:

    Noonan appealed to a three-member panel for the First Circuit, which initially upheld the ruling by Lasker. But last month it reversed itself on the libel claim, saying Noonan could pursue that part of his lawsuit because of a relatively obscure 1902 [Massachusetts] law.

    The law says truth is a defense against libel unless the plaintiff can show "actual malice" by the person publishing the statement.

    In ordinary discussions of First Amendment law, "actual malice" refers to the standard established in the landmark 1964 US Supreme Court decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan.

    In that context, it means a plaintiff who is a public figure can win a libel suit only after proving that a journalist knew a published statement was false or acted in reckless disregard for the truth.

    But in the Massachusetts law cited by the appeals court, "actual malice" means "malevolent intent or ill will," said the panel. Noonan might be able to persuade a jury that the company demonstrated ill will; Baitler had never referred to a fired employee by name in a mass e-mail before, and jurors might conclude he "singled out Noonan in order to humiliate him," the court wrote.

    So we're talking about:

    1) A state law.

    2) A ruling that simply allows the guy to sue; it's not a final verdict by any means.

    3) A very specific instance, that will eventually be settled in court anyway, as per 2).

    So, I don't think this is anything for journalists to get overly anxious over, in truth.

  • ...when libel is defined as a false and malicious publication printed for the purpose of defaming a living person?

    Note: Bold mine...

  • Bloggers beware (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kjella (173770) on Friday March 13, 2009 @03:10PM (#27184615) Homepage

    But Wendy Sibbison, the Greenfield appellate lawyer for the fired Staples employee, Alan S. Noonan, said the ruling applies only to lawsuits by private figures against private defendants, that is, defendants not involved in the news business, over purely private matters.

    Most bloggers would fall under "private persons" and not "news organizations" I'd think. So say something true that puts a person in less than favorable light on your blog, and you get a libel suit? The US just made another step in digging itself siz feet under with lawsuits.

    • Next time you bring up your opponent's questionable past, you could be sued for a form of defamation.

      I bit this will happen exactly once, and this obscure law will be rewritten.
    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Dragonslicer (991472)

      So say something true that puts a person in less than favorable light on your blog, and you get a libel suit?

      Not necessarily. Under this Massachusetts law, you could be sued if you say something that's true and the sole purpose of saying it is to harm the other person. Revealing information about a politician because you believe it's important for the public to know that information, despite any potential harm to the subject, shouldn't be grounds for a lawsuit.

      Personally, I like the general concept of the law (preventing an action that's sole purpose is to harm another person), but I know that there's no good w

  • So what's the difference between a private defendant and a public defendant? One is just a person and the other is backed by a company?

    Are we creating rules that don't apply to companies?

  • by commodoresloat (172735) on Friday March 13, 2009 @03:20PM (#27184777)

    It seems that the issue here is not just defamation and truth but also invasion of privacy. Even exposing truthful information can open one to a tort if that information is considered private and there is no reason to communicate it to third parties. In this case the court found it particularly troubling that the company violated its own policy on privacy when sending the email.

    The other problem mentioned in the court opinion [uscourts.gov] itself there was also a false light issue -- even if the content of the email was true, strictly speaking, it falsely led readers to believe that Noonan not only was fired but also violated the law.

    Ultimately though the court was persuaded that even if the statement was true, it was made with "actual malice." The relevant Mass. law already has an exception built into defamation law that says a true statement can still be libelous if it is made with "actual malice," and they concluded in this case that the statement was made with such intent. The definition of actual malice the court settles on is quite different from the definition generally used in US law -- rather than "reckless disregard for truth," the court concludes that it means something like "ill will." It is this definition of "actual malice" that may undermine traditional interpretations of libel law. The notion that "truth as a defense" is undermined by this case is probably an exaggeration -- that defense is already undermined by the exemption itself as it exists in Massachusetts law.

  • by PPH (736903)

    Does the intent of the defendant matter? In the case of a news organization, the intent is merely to inform the public of the facts. If an ex-employer releases damaging information about an employee with the intent of harming their career, then damages may be appropriate. I don't know as IANAL.

    We have a judicial system for the purpose of handing out civil and criminal penalties. I'm guessing here that the courts don't want private parties to engage in a form of vigilantism by going after other's reputation

  • by ContractualObligatio (850987) on Friday March 13, 2009 @03:28PM (#27184881)

    Wow, this story covers pretty much all the angles that annoy me about bad legal decisions:

    • Suddenly a word that had a well known meaning in the real world (i.e. libels are lies) has a different meaning in law.
    • The plaintiff is complaining about a situation in which they were the ones doing something fundamentally wrong.
    • The truth seems to be less important than the ability to use weasel words and slippery logic.
    • It encourages bad behaviour e.g. in this case sales people with expense accounts who feel they don't need to keep records, and should suffer no adverse effects if they get caught.

    I'm a consultant, I claim expenses, I work with sales people who also claim expenses, and I don't see a need to be naive here. If you're sacking someone for what is essentially a free-loading lack of integrity, I don't you should be obliged by law to keep that fact hidden. True, normally it's a more respectful "John is moving on to new challenges" kind of message that goes out, but it shouldn't be illegal to let people know that bad behaviour can be caught and punished. Particularly in job roles that are typically well compensated in the context of any given employer, and where they are effectively entrusted with other people's money.

    I'm assuming here that the "sloppy" record keeping means money has been claimed that wasn't supported by an appropriate paper trail. Because who sacks people for claiming less expenses than they were due? That said, it's possible this was a vindictive sacking over a minor infringement made in genuine error. But if that's the case, fight the legal battle on those grounds rather than trying to set a precedent that could have far broader impact. I gotta say my gut feel is that people who distort language so much as to say libel means telling the truth are not to be trusted...

  • While I am not sure if this should be considered libel, I don't think the defense 'well it was true!' always triumphs as a legal defense. What about rights to privacy? Suppose the email had disclosed that Noonan had left his job because he had been diagnosed with cancer.. while this statement might be true, doesn't he have a right to keep some information about himself private?

    Slashdot users seem to argue for privacy most of the time... they get upset with companies that share information, but never say "

    • While I am not sure if this should be considered libel, I don't think the defense 'well it was true!' always triumphs as a legal defense. What about rights to privacy?

      Right to privacy is a different issue.

      "It was true" is (or should be) a defense against libel-- not a defense against violation of privacy. Different things.

  • ...imagine I was fired for sleeping with the directors daughter, who also happened to be the comptroller, and had access to my pay records (which would constitute gross misconduct, perhaps?), that doesn't mean the whole world should know that I porked her. Even the fact I was fired should be available only as a result of a direct enquiry, and I'm not even sure about that. It's not a crime to be fired from a company. In europe, (as far as I am aware) you may only ask a previous employer the following "Would
  • The way Andy Grove would do it would be to dismiss him but give him a glowing review on the condition that he go to work for a competitor (and presumably steal from them instead). How is this guy ever going to get a job at Office Max or Office Depo when Staples claims he's been stealing?
  • by EGenius007 (1125395) on Friday March 13, 2009 @05:18PM (#27186401)
    I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that they got this judgment right. Relevant Massachusetts law says libel is untruthful or malicious statements against a person's character. Staples made statements that, while truthful, may well have been malicious due to the scope and context of their presentation.

    Now a judge or jury will hear arguments from both sides. Previously, a judge had simply heard Staples say (paraphrasing) "nothing in this widely distributed e-mail that defamed the plaintiff was factually untrue, so these charges must be dismissed." This disregarded the fact that the e-mail describing Noonan's firing for violation of company policies was itself a violation of company policy, that the subtext of the message implied he had willfully violated company policy for his own profit when he maintains the violations were done in a combination of good faith and company-wide SOP that defied the letter of the written and largely un-enforced official policy, and that the context and timing of the firing as well as the inclusion of his name in the e-mail might lead those who read it to believe that Staples felt he had broken the law.

    Seems that both parties acted immorally. Noonan simply wants his day in court to prove that Staples also acted illegally. His case DOES deserve to be heard, and Massachusetts probably DOES need to reexamine this law.

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