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How is this not libel?

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 4, 2006
(Issue 2431, Hobbies and Games)

If I were, in this space, to accuse someone by name of deceitful behavior, of misleading me in some transaction and causing me harm of some sort, I (and the good folks at ComputorEdge) would expect to hear from said person's attorneys in short order.

My only defense would be that everything I said was provably true – and I better have the evidence to back it up.

The power of the press is mighty, but so are the repercussions for misusing it in a way that causes harm to others.

Printing falsehoods about someone else, or even printing harmful information not considered to be the public's business, can land one in civil court under provisions of what are called defamation law. Invasion of privacy, slander and libel are all different kinds of defamation, and all can result in serious financial consequences.

Even the mighty New York Times and Washington Post recently settled out of court with a nuclear scientist who sued after those papers (and others) reported that he had been under investigation for passing state secrets to China or other foreign powers.

And yet, while the Times and Post consider themselves legally (and ethically) bound to adhere to the laws governing defamation, several new Web sites that claim to help women avoid dishonest men in their dating lives seem oblivious to the very concept of defamation or privacy.

Although they are, perhaps, a bit less oblivious now that one man so identified on one site has sued.

Libel and slander, dot-com style pitches itself as "a powerful online forum for women to share their dating experiences and warn other women about the men who have allegedly cheated on or lied to them!"

But anyone cast post anything; the site doesn't claim responsibility for the accuracy of the posts.

(And beyond the legalities involved, let's talk fairness for a second: Are we really to believe that only women are ever wronged in love; that no woman would ever unfairly disparage her recent ex- out of spite?)

Back to the crux of the issue: Men are being accused of all kinds of heinous behavior, with no standard of proof whatsoever. They are identified by name, city of residence, and even a physical description. Some of these "profiles" even have photographs accompanying them.

And some of the "men" so profiled are under the age of 18, according to said profiles.

Were I a lawyer, I'd have a field day with this.

Much of what is posted here sure seems to fit the definition of libel per se – meaning that should the subject of the post choose to sue, they wouldn't have to prove they were harmed by the statement; only that the statement was posted. Statements are considered libel per se when they are so negative that anyone's reputation would invariably suffer because of them.

When you accuse someone of domestic violence, of drug use, of being a child molestor – all of which I found in a few minutes' browsing – you're on pretty thin legal ice.

The site attempts to counter these concerns by offering to print men's rebuttals.

But giving someone a chance to say, "Hey, I'm not a child molestor" is hardly enough to restore their good name.

Fighting back

In early July, the Associated Press carried a story about Todd J. Hollis, an attorney in western Pennsylvania. He's filed a defamation lawsuit against the owner of, Tasha C. Joseph of Miami.

Here's the rub: According to the news reports, Joseph is a former columnist for the Miami Herald newspaper. So she ought to know exactly what libel is and how to protect her Web site from it.

I e-mailed Joseph shortly after the story moved and asked her why the posts on her site should not be considered libelous.

I never heard back.

It will be interesting to see how this case plays out; to date, the courts have held that what's libel in print is libel online.


Not surprisingly, Joseph's site is not alone in seeking to "out" cads and protect women. Yahoo has a whole category titled "Relationships>Cheating". (formerly has similar profiles – full names, cities of residence, photos. It touts itself as the "World's Largest Database Ranking Men." Can you say, "World's largest target of attorneys specializing in defamation"?

If men are posting similar things about women, I can't find them. Doesn't mean they're not out there.

And I do sympathize with women who've been burned by a jerk.

But here's the thing.

A lot of my friends have had their hearts broken that way. Most of the time, though, they admitted they liked him because he was a "bad boy." Whether it was the thrill of danger or a deep-seated belief they could change him, they proceeded anyway.

No woman really needs a Web site to protect herself from the jerks of the world – not when the cost is many innocent men having their reputations ruined. (And if the women being hurt are our sisters, daughters, aunts and mothers, the men being defamed are our brothers, sons, uncles and fathers.)

Want to protect yourself? Listen to what your gut is telling you.

And then act on it.