Imagine, if you will, that your 13-year-old son is killed in a hit-and-run. Or that your daughter is violently assaulted and dies as a result of her injuries. It’s a tough request, I know. But please bear with me.
Let’s take it one step further. Following the homicide, you become aware that sickening lies about your child are circulating in the media and internet — your son was a drug-addicted bully, your daughter a prostitute.
You’d be distraught, right? And you’d want a retraction? To put a stop to the malicious lies?
Well, there’s nothing you could do. NOTHING.
And that’s because the law is quite clear: a person who’s dead can’t sue for defamation. So no matter how ugly and vicious the false statements, there’s no legal redress for the families of the deceased.
Really, I’m not kidding.
Defamation of the dead causes great anguish to families at a time when they’re already struggling to cope with their loss. Yet it’s more common than people realize. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s a hate-stoked world once you appreciate the scale of the problem. At times it feels as if it’s open season on the memory of the dead.
Below are examples of what some co-victims have to contend with.
A disgraceful case of British media defamation relates to the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster. In all, 96 innocent people were crushed to death in a football stadium. Another 162 were hospitalized. The deceased were described as ‘thugs’, ‘drunken yobs’ and ‘hooligans’ by some newspapers. It took parents 27 (yes, TWENTY-SEVEN) years to clear the names of their loved ones.
Another example is when media misreport facts. The family of Diane Watson, a schoolgirl stabbed to death in Scotland, fought to clear their daughter’s name for many years. Defamatory articles about Diane were based solely on arguments put forward by defense lawyers during the trial of her killer. Tragically, these articles would eventually lead to the suicide of her brother. Diane’s mother stated: “Just because a person has died, their reputation shouldn’t die with them. They shouldn’t be besmirched at the will of a sick journalist.”
And then there’s trolling — attacks by anonymous individuals who post repugnant comments online. Especially cruel are trolls who post on memorial pages. Social media companies are well aware of the problem yet their response time in taking down abusive material is still unacceptably slow. The fact is, these sites are currently not legally obliged to develop effective controls to combat cyber-bullying and neither can they be sued.
So what can we do to curtail this type of defamation? Changing the law is what’s required.
The trouble is, attempts to do so are opposed by the media. They argue that freedom of speech will be put at risk. I’m not swayed by this view. I don’t think freedom of speech will be curtailed by extending current libel laws so that they include the deceased. It simply can’t be right that those who publish lies or are abusive in a sickening way about our dead children face no consequences.
Why shouldn’t the deceased be afforded the same protection as the living? Defamation laws don’t reflect today’s internet and media world, but they should. Germany, for example, has recently passed new laws (NetzDG) compelling Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube to remove fake news, hate speech and illegal material within 24 hours. Non-compliance can mean fines of up to $60million / £44million. If Germany can tackle, or at least try to tackle, this scourge, so can we.
Take the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook — 20 children and six adults died at the hands of a gunman. Vile articles were published online by trolls and hoaxers following the shooting. How can this be OK? One of the Sandy Hook parents, Lenny Pozner, set up the HONR network which helps tackle the harassment of grieving families. HONR not only helps those affected by Sandy Hook but also survivors and co-victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, the Orlando Pulse nightclub, the Aurora Theater, amongst others. In the words of the HONR:
“Existing laws make it very difficult and costly to prosecute hoaxers, which only emboldens them to spread defamation and disinformation… with relative impunity.”
The Sandy Hook parents have recently filed defamation lawsuits in Texas against conspiracy theorist Alex Jones for claiming the shooting was staged and that they, the parents, are actors. They’re not the only ones actively pushing back. Following the shooting at Parkland High School in Florida, students demonstrated that they weren’t going stay silent in the face of abuse. These survivors are outspoken, articulate, and are calling out trolls as well as ‘fake news’.
It’s a courageous way to fight defamation by meeting it head-on. Yet, in the end, it’s only possible when the lies are about those who are still living. That’s why this approach doesn’t work when it’s your child’s memory that has been trashed and not you. And even if they wanted to, many homicide-loss families simply don’t have the social media skills of the younger generation nor the resources necessary to undertake an online counter-campaign in defense of their loved ones.
They shouldn’t have to. No one should have to, least of all the grieving who have been unwillingly thrust into the spotlight by traumatic events. The sad fact is that there’s an underlying flaw in our society because it fails to protect our dead children.
I believe you can have a free press as well as effective libel laws that protect both the living and the dead. Media companies and social networking sites won’t change willingly and self-regulation never works. So it’s time we passed legislation that holds those who spread repugnant lies about our dead children accountable.
Main photo credit: Kaboompics.com / Pexels
Insert photo credit: Robinraj Premchand / Pixabay