A Cliche May Be In Order

There are a number of clichés associated with the law. Some are kind of meaningless – “Possession is nine tenths of the law.” Others are true some of the time – “A man who represents himself has a fool for a lawyer” (I’ve seen people pay big hourly rates and get the same level of service). There’s one that’s accurate a lot of the time – “Hard facts make bad law.” What this means is that in really awful situations, courts will bend over backwards to address a problem, but the precedent will have effects well beyond the case immediately before it. Legislative bodies get in on the act as well. A recent case from Georgia illustrates the point. A Georgia man recovered a $400,000 judgment from a woman who’d made anonymous, defamatory online postings about him. Because the postings were clearly damaging to his reputation, he was able to get a court order requiring the online site to identify her, and ultimately, justice prevailed. But the victim wants more – specifically he is working with a state legislator to pass legislation that would make it criminal to post defamatory comments online. The question of course is, do we really need a law like that? Would law enforcement have time to actually police it? And could a public official who is the subject of unflattering comments use the criminal law to shut down legitimate debate? The prospect of a six figure civil judgment will keep responsible people from recklessly libeling people. And the prospect of a criminal conviction won’t stop the crazy people. The potential bad effects outweigh any benefits here. Best to leave well enough alone.