For two years after the publication of Fighting Slander, I thought that my readers were unhinged. I received deranged emails that looked like ransom letters from a 1950s movie - CAPITAL LETTERS and bad grammar, most starting or ending with "HELP!" I cautiously started talking to these people, and soon learned that the great majority had been perfectly normal humans a few years before. Loose lips or poison pens had pushed them over the brink to abnormal behavior.
How abnormal? A rare few victims of defamation deal with it rationally - very optimistically, perhaps 5% of them. More become obsessed. And far too many become their own destroyers, by protesting their innocence to everyone they meet - including people who never would have heard about it anyway.
Dealing with defamation rationally is the exception because defamation is rarely rational. It is perpetrated not only by clinical psychopaths and semi-functional sociopaths, but apparently normal people who have too much time on their hands, best summed up by philosopher Eric Hoffer, "People mind other people's affairs when their own affairs are not worth minding."
Where does defamation happen? Anywhere. There are hot spots, like homeowners associations (HOAs), K-12 schools, churches, and small business. (It happens less often in places like higher education or Fortune 500s, where - in fear of HR departments - slanderers usually resort to "damning by faint praise.")
Stopping defamation in its tracks is often impossible. Attributed to everyone from Mark Twain to Winston Churchill, "A lie can be halfway around the world before the truth can put on its pants." There's an excitement, a titillation, in spreading defamation - soap operas and reality shows can't compare, and otherwise decent people join in spreading the defamation with enthusiasm. They are not necessarily acting in malice - just happy to gab about something or anything.
Surely it can be shrugged off with clear thinking and some deep breathing, or a couple of visits to a therapist? No, it can't. I remember a surgeon who left the practice of medicine and worked as a bicycle mechanic for two years, feeling more confidence - and sanity - in using a wrench than a scalpel. His story was only unusual in that he found a practical therapy - and could afford to work in a bike shop for two years. He was one of hundreds I've spoken to. Other readers retire completely from their profession, or move across the U.S. to escape the defamation. (I never hear from the teenagers who commit suicide - they don't sue, their families don't act soon enough, and like you, I read about it after the tragedy.)
But as an expert witness and litigation consultant, the medical reports from adults march across my desk, with psychiatrists' documentation of client anxiety, depression, PTSD, and suicidal impulses. A cynic might shrug these off as "paid-for" medical reports, but the emergency room reports are much harder to dismiss, with diagnoses of temporary amnesia and panic attacks. I don't think ERs are taking the time to "paper the file."
To compare reality and defamation, which one is more traumatic . . . to accidentally run over your neighbor's dog and kill it, or be falsely accused of running over your neighbor's dog? After 14 years of speaking to defamation victims, that's a no-brainer: being falsely accused is far more traumatic. Killing a neighbor's pet will distress any normal person, and they will occasionally think about it even years later. On the other hand, the normal human will immediately call the dog's owner, or take the dog to a pet clinic themselves, and history will read ". . . it really broke them up . . . they drove the dog to a clinic, but it was too late."
Being falsely accused of it can become a running psychic sore, a daily source of stress every time you get a cold look from a neighbor, or the "Oh, you're the one who . . ." look from someone you just met. When the story is fictitious, there's no record of you driving the dog to the hospital, because the accident never happened. And where there is no crime, no alibi is possible.
Online defamation gets most of the media coverage, flowing from the ill-conceived Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which gives far too much license to blogs and social media - without the responsibilities imposed on mainstream media. Online defamation is both real and pandemic, as exemplified at its most horrific by widely-publicized teenage suicides.
When piled on top of traditional means of defamation as by mouth or email, social media moves slander and libel from pandemic toward epidemic. New laws are needed - because while I'm no fan of more laws, the fact is that decades of U.S. Supreme Court decisions don't address the epidemic. Their decisions are largely about major media libel, and don't apply well to individual situations.
While we wait for sane legislation, what are the practical solutions? They are few, and drastic. In my observation the best ones are to move to a new life, changing job, profession, or school - or moving to another town.
Legal solutions? They were once too expensive. But jury awards have been rising steadily over the last decade, not just for financial harms (lost wages or customers), but for emotional distress, as in this case against a doctor in Washington DC, where the emotional distress claim alone got the victim a $500,000 judgment.
As we wait for realistic legislation that may never written, and Supreme Court decisions that never come, it may be up to we, the people, to lower the bar of character defamation by filing a few more lawsuits - admittedly further clogging the courts, but at least building a growing body of "case law" (court decisions that become legal precedents) that delivers the message:
No, defamation is not just idle gossip - it ruins people's lives.
Nicholas Carroll is the author of Fighting Slander, now in 4th Edition.