I didn’t go to college, let alone law school. So when I started joking a few years back—in response to my own legal troubles—that “libel is what we got when we abolished dueling,” I had no idea that’s exactly what happened.
“The offence originated in England at the time of the Court of Star Chamber with the intention of preventing dueling,” explains one of Canada’s top lawyers in his recent call for the abolition of our criminal libel laws.
Yes, “criminal.” While criminal libel cases are rare compared to the amusingly named “civil” kind—which I’m up against—you face actual jail time if found guilty of the former.
Wow, who are these sinister menaces to Canadian society, you’re wondering, these heedless breachers of the Queen’s peace who need to be tossed behind bars?
Well, there’s the restaurant owner sentenced to 90 days in jail for “publishing false material concerning an online restaurant reviewer;” the protester who blogged mean things about two cops; another guy who wrote mean things about some cops and a judge; and, er, the dude who texted nude photos of his ex-girlfriend.
Bob Kane at the height of his creative powers would have a hell of a time turning these folks into credible Batman villains.
In terms of sheer stupidity, though, Canada’s civil defamation laws fall between England’s—(where Liberace won, Julie Burchill lost, and libel tourism is one of that country’s last flourishing industries)—to America’s First Amendment “Can’t they both lose?” free-for-all.
To our credit, Canada—like every other nation except the United States—is at least a “user pays” jurisdiction, so we’re not burdened by what I call “lottery law”: all those “I spilled hot coffee on my lap!” (non-defamation) suits that have contributed so greatly to America’s economic and moral decline.
When someone does sue for libel in the US, it provides cheap entertainment for anyone not directly involved. How do you serve “Bubba the Love Sponge” without laughing? Then there’s the non-Nobel Prize winner who sued Dr. Tim Ball for joking, “Michael Mann at Penn State should be in the State Pen, not Penn State.”
Tort reform is desperately needed throughout the English-speaking world, and once in a while, our robed betters deign to nibble away at the law around the edges.
We all know that true, lasting tort reform will never happen, because lawyers are too politically powerful.
That doesn’t matter, though. Defamation will eventually atrophy into extinction as social mores change, as have previous subspecies of libel (the “blasphemous” and “seditious” kinds).
For better or for worse, the notion that God and country could be fatally injured by insult has withered away. Defamatory libel is the next concept facing the scrap heap because today, a good reputation is less valuable than a bad one.
This phenomenon is nothing new but has reached epidemic proportions due mostly to technological advances. The difference between Kim Kardashian and Roxie Hart is the Internet, ninety years, and a net worth of $40 million.
That same technology has led to the other reason libel will fade away: the Streisand Effect.
If you sue someone now, the allegedly damaging, unspeakable, humiliating libel is repeated in news stories and blog posts around the world. As a reputation-management strategy, suing is the moral equivalent of picking a scab. Contra that tone-deaf New Yorker cartoonist: On the Internet, everyone knows you’re a dog.
Back in the ’70s, the famously litigious church [of Scientology] had time to fight publicly with the novelist William S. Burroughs, himself a Scientology defector—or, in the ’90s, with Time magazine. Today, going after every Cruise-bashing blog post would be impossible.
Annie Oakley actually did that. Back when one’s reputation still more or less mattered, the famous female sharpshooter took fifty-five different newspapers to court for claiming, among other things, that she’d been jailed for “stealing the trousers of a negro in order to get money with which to buy cocaine.”
Oakley won almost every suit, but not after she’d been forced to travel across the country for six years. The crusade cost her more money than she ever won in damages.
She’d have been better off challenging her libelers to a duel.
As an alternative to libel suits, there is no downside to dueling. Knowing their very lives are at stake, fewer powerful blowhards will try to bully their ideological enemies into silence.
(In Canada, the plaintiff’s damaged reputation and/or loss of income are assumed—he doesn’t even have to itemize it in court. To the contrary, as in England, libel defendants are presumed guilty until proven innocent. Even if one emerges triumphant, the long, costly, and emotionally draining process is the punishment.)
Under the dueling system, courts will be freed up.
The firearms and funeral businesses will boom.
And at the end of the day, the world will be down a few idiots.
This isn’t some “modest proposal,” either. I’m deadly serious. And if you don’t believe me, it’s pistols at dawn.
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