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 ďThou shalt not bear false witness against your neighbor.Ē 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 personís reputation by disclosing information about them for no good reason or that is nobody elseís business but that personís own.

††††††† Now it may be that when a person enters into politics they should expect that his or her private life becomes everybody elseís 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 U.S.A. But when it comes to slander or deliberately telling lies about another person, especially in the public media, it is another matter, and becomes a question of libel, which can be punished under civil law.

††††††† However, the radio and TV networks know that for the charge of libel to stick in this country (unlike in the U.K. where any publication of an untruth about another person, even if inadvertent, can be punished by law), one has to prove that the accused knew that the utterance is or was untrue. So we find our most popular talk radio hosts and political pundits mostly engaged in insinuation and suggestion, stirring up anger and suspicion, rather than in outright accusations, lest they end up getting slapped by a lawsuit. But it seems that with the advent of the Internet, no propaganda tactic, however underhanded it may be, has been left untried. Hardly a week goes by when I donít receive some sort of wild accusation (usually regarding the political scene) sent to me by well-meaning friends, most of whom consider themselves to be deeply religious, yet who seem to have no awareness that in doing so they are engaged in what their religion teaches is basically an unethical or immoral act.

††††††† 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 ó or even simply pass on via the Internet.


R W Kropf††† 7/29/10†††††††††††††††††††††††††† Slander.doc 10-07-29.html