Slander and Free Speech
Recently, Shirley Sherrod, a veteran black employee of the U.S. Dept of Agriculture, was fired from her job after a portion of the speech she gave before a meeting of the NAACP where she confessed to being tempted to give a white farmer a hard time (but then relented when she realized he was being taken advantage of by a white lawyer) was taken out of context and splashed across the Internet by a well known ultra-conservative blogger, Andrew Breibant. It appears that Mr. Breibant was trying to accuse the present administration of racism in reverse. As a result, the administration hastily dismissed Ms. Sherrod almost immediately before anyone bothered to listen to everything that she had actually said. If nothing else, the whole incident should warn us as to the dangers as well as the limits of free speech, especially during this age of almost instantaneous communication.
It should also remind us of one of the Ten Commandments, the one that says “Thou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.” Strictly speaking, this commandment has been seen as first of all as being a condemnation of perjury, which is giving false testimony under oath. But in traditional Christian moral teaching, it is also seen as forbidding telling lies about people (slander or calumny) or even engaging in detraction, that is tearing down a person’s reputation by disclosing information about them for no good reason or that is nobody else’s business but that person’s own.
Now it may be that when a person enters
into politics they should expect that his or her private life becomes everybody
else’s business, or at least they should not be surprised when their personal
foibles become front-page news. It is probably for that reason that there are
no civil laws against such detraction, at least in the
However, the radio and TV networks know
that for the charge of libel to stick in this country (unlike in the
Today, as I write this, one news service announced that Ms. Sherrod intends to take Mr. Breibant to court. I hope so, even if her lawsuit is not successful. If nothing else perhaps her effort will at least begin to remind everyone of us that we bear a moral obligation and responsibility to be as sure as humanly possible of the truth of what we say, or write — or even simply pass on via the Internet.