SHERIFF'S CORNER: Sticks and stones may break my bones...

Not all speech is protected equally

A week does not go by that I don't get a message from someone wanting to file a complaint about comments made on someone's Facebook page. This ranges from negative comments about someone's character, statements that appear threatening or untruthful things.

There used to be a phrase "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me."

In this country we have the right to free speech. This means we can pretty much say whatever we want as long as it does not incite violence, is obscene or violates a specific court order.

As it may not be criminal, there are things that can be said that may raise to the level of 'slander' or 'libel.' Keep in mind slander and libel are NOT criminal. They are civil, which means you may have the grounds to sue someone, but it is not a crime.

There are many factors that are needed to raise to these levels. Someone saying you are ugly or that you smell, is probably not going to meet those requirements. Trust me, as an elected official I know about this first hand. A week doesn't go by that I don't hear some "off the wall" or untruthful story about something I supposedly did or did not do.

In this edition of the "Sheriff's Corner," I discuss free speech, slander and libel.

DEFINITIONS

The First Amendment states:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

As stated earlier, free speech does not give someone the ability to make statements that are false that cause some type of established financial loss or damage to someone's reputation that has severely effected the persons livelihood. That is described in two ways, "slander" or "libel."

Slander: Also known as oral or spoken defamation, slander is the legal term for the act of harming a person's reputation by telling one or more other people something that is untrue and damaging about that person. Slander can be the basis for a lawsuit and is considered a civil wrong.

Libel: Is a method of defamation expressed by print, writing, pictures, signs, or any communication embodied in physical form that damages a person's reputation, exposes a person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or injures a person in his/her business or profession.

In short, "slander" is just saying it and "libel" is writing or posting it somewhere.

LIMITATIONS TO FREE SPEECH

Over the years, there have been many instances where the government has concluded through various legal proceedings and case law that not all speech is protected. Here is a general overview of some of these prohibitions.

Obscenity: In 1973, the Supreme Court, in Miller v. California, came up with a three-part definition of obscene material.

• A work is legally considered obscene if an average person, applying contemporary community standards, would find that the material appeals to prurient (appealing to sexual desire) interest.

• The work depicts or describes, in an offensive way, sexual conduct or excretory functions, specifically defined by applicable state law.

• Taken as a whole, the material lacks serious literary, artistic, political, or scientific value.

False Statements of Fact: The elements needed to fall under this requirement, a false statement purporting to be fact; publication or communication of that statement to a third person; fault amounting to at least negligence; and damages, or some harm caused to the person or entity who is the subject of the statement.

Child Pornography: The exception for child pornography is distinct from the obscenity exception in a few ways. First, the rule is much more specific to what falls under the exception. Second, it is irrelevant whether any part of the speech meets the criteria for obscenity. The rule provides that speech is unprotected if it "visually depicts" children below the age of majority and performing sexual acts or showing of other regions.

Threatening the President of the United States: Under Title 18 Section 871 of the United States Code it is illegal to knowingly and willfully make "any threat to take the life of, to kidnap, or to inflict bodily harm upon the president of the United States." This also applies to any "President-elect, Vice President or other officer next in the order of succession to the office of President, or Vice President-elect."

Violence: You can’t make offensive remarks or personal insults that would immediately lead to a fight. You also can’t threaten violence to a specific person unless you’re making an obvious exaggeration (for instance, “I’m going to kill my opponent in the Super Bowl”). Last, you can’t knowingly say things that cause severe emotional distress or incite others to “immediate lawless action.”

Workplace and Private Property: You don’t have the right to say whatever you want in someone else’s home or other private setting such as an employer. And, as an employee, believe it or not, you have no free-speech rights at your workplace.

The right to free speech applies only when the government (not a private party) is trying to restrict it. For example, an employer can legally fire an employee whose car bears a campaign bumper sticker he/she doesn’t like.

Note: This does not apply to things that are said that are discriminatory and/or protected under law.

SOCIAL MEDIA AS A DRUG

When I was growing up we did not have the outlet of social media to communicate, express our beliefs or connect with people. We had to actually call them on a phone with a cord, or drive over to their place with a car.

As social media is a good way to connect with friends and find out what is happening in your community, it also has it's negative aspects at times. It provides an avenue for those to say whatever they want without repercussions or provide any evidence of what they are actually saying is true.

What shocks me is that I see so many believing everything they hear or not considering the source. As we all know, there are those that are always seeking attention whether it is negative or positive. Social media has now added to that lack of attention which leads me to the topic of social media as a drug.

I attended a seminar a few years back that addressed the effects on the brain with social media. The collation between being on a drug had the same result of when someone likes your post or comments on a thread. This relationship was the same as when it comes to opioids and/or cocaine usage.

From a recent study: "Facebook likes and comments activate similar parts of the brain as opioids, where each like or positive comment activates the reward system and the brain releases dopamine."

It would support that those who are always posting things on social media are looking to achieve this result. It may sound kind of extreme, but just sit back an actually think about it. It makes perfect sense.

— This information is provided to you for clarification on specific laws, and not legal advice. This is not to be construed as a personal opinion, agreement or disagreement of any specific law. Topics covered are for educational and informational purposes only. As needed, excerpts from other articles are used for reference and/or content. If you have any questions on any specific topic, you may always email me your questions to rmartin@co.lake.mi.us.