Little “white” lies may be commonplace in many societies, but when people damage others by not telling the truth, there are a couple legal terms for that: Slander and Libel. The latter is when the damage is done in writing. Historically, liars, slanderers and libelors have fallen back upon First Amendment protections (within the U.S.) and claims on the rights of Freedom of the Press. In two cases reported within the past week or so, the courts are begging to disagree. In both cases, anonymity was disallowed. The judge agreed with the plaintiff that determining identity of the author was appropriate and necessary, ordering Google to provide gmail account information which might help identify the authors of the allegedly libelous writings.
We’re all for the Bill of Rights, Constitutional Protections and Freedom of Speech… but nowhere does it say (nor should it) that one can express oneself anonymously. Just as a physician is held accountable if his neglegence causes damage, the authors of libelous comments should also be required to answer for their damaging actions. What if, when faced with a claim of malpractice, the practice were able to successfully claim right to anonymity by not letting the patient’s attorney know the actual name of the doctor who treated that patient. Ludicrous. RIDICULOUS! “That’s insane!” you may exclaim. And you’d be right. In any functional society, we may be free to act, but we’re also held accountable for what we do with that liberty. Why should writing — online or otherwise — be any different?
These two recent rulings, one in favor of a former supermodel who was categorized as a permiscuous “slut” and the other a reporter for an online publication who informed that an elected official was involved in illegal and corrupt activities, are evidence that the courts are not allowing those who lie and defame to do so with impunity. Whether or not libel was performed is, as it should be, something for the courts to decide. Medical Justice does not side with either party in either of these cases. We’re simply expressing that we’re glad to see the Age of Accountability emerging.
For far too long, well-intended physicians have been fair game for any sort of cheap shot hurled at them. The mere allegation is enough to damage a doctor’s reputation, causing irreparable losses in reputation and finances. In the past, there has been very little anyone could do about it. “It’s the Internet. Anyone can say anything,” people would rationalize. But the damage was done all the same. Medical Justice, long-time defender of physicians against such defamation, is pleased to see the courts requiring those who write baseless allegations to stand up and be identified. We’re glad to see liars put on notice, told in clear terms that the First Amendment is not some Carte Blanche allowing them to spread vulgar lies against innocent healers.
When a patient is injured as a direct result of legitimate negligence or malfeasance, we agree that the patient should be restored in as much as that is possible, and that the patient deserves compensation for their actual injuries. But when there is no malpractice, simply a less than desirable outcome, that should not permit an open season on the doctors and healthcare providers involved in that patient’s treatment. It adds insult to injury that when libel occurs. Often there isn’t even an injured patient in the first place! Any disgruntled employee or mischievous graffiti artist can make false and vapid claims against a doctor or practice, and then hide behind a cloak of Internet anonymity.
Liars, defamers, spewers of libel, you’re on notice: What you say can and will be held against you in a court of law.