Libel and Slander and Bears, Oh My!

I always forget the difference between libel and slander, though I remember they're both bad. I just looked them up on Wikipedia (so you know it must be true:-) and the difference, as seen through a writer's eyes, is that slander is speech and libel is writing. Both are forms of defamation, which I crudely interpret as the dissemination of potentially damaging lies. For some reason, I get regular e-mails from writers and self publishers asking me to offer an opinion on whether they're likely to be sued for defamation for publishing a given book. I always start by telling them that it's a question for a lawyer, but I'm likely to add two personal opinions. First, that telling the truth is probably less risky than lying, and second, if you're really worried that you may be libeling somebody, that's a bad sign.

So, are concerns over libel and slander a good reason to invest thousands or tens of thousands of dollars into insurance and legal consultations before publishing your first book?

My advice, for the record, is never to take legal advice from a blog. In fact, I wouldn't suggest taking legal advice from a book written by a lawyer either. The problem for those of us who aren't lawyers is that we really don't understand the application of the law. Getting a legal opinion from anybody other than an attorney you've retained is a form of fool's gold, or fool's consolation. In fact, I recently read IRS publications until I was blue in the face, but as confident as I was in my understanding of what I read, I wasn't comfortable until I paid a CPA who works with writers and publishers for an opinion.

And that's where I see insurance and legal help fitting into concerns over libel and slander. I may have slipped in a question here and there when having lunch with my lawyer, but I'm comfortable with what I've written and published, so I haven't seen the need to start hunting for bears in the woods. If you've written something that sets the back of your brain tingling and you have assets to protect, I think you have to consider editing out those concerns or paying a lawyer or insurance company to have them alleviated. Those tingles may just be your Spidey Sense, but they might also be your conscience doth'ing you a dose of well deserved cowardice.

Large organizations often practice structured risk management. For any new activity the organization gets involved in, a manager or team leader might be asked to draw up a list of the ten greatest risks facing the project and how they can best be ameliorated. My feeling, for new self publishers, is if you're spending all of your time on risk management, you may be choosing the wrong subjects to write about, or even the wrong reasons to write. I think my mother (a known quoter of epitaphs without attribution) summed it up best with, "If you don't have something nice to say..."

Mom never got sued, but she never won a Pulitzer either.

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