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Sunday, April 22, 2012

Mortenson Trial Could Threaten Freedom of Speech | Duane Raleigh, Rock and Ice.com

I don't know all the facts of the lawsuit discussed in this article, but it sure raises a provocative and important issue.

The legal questions, as I read this issue, is can a writer (and his or her book publisher) be held liable for publishing false information as true? Is it fraud to present fiction as truth? And would a court ruling of fraud interfere with freedom of speech (and press)?

Raleigh doesn't provide much information supporting the lawsuit, but he describes some arguments for tossing it out in a Montana court. Attorneys for the author (Greg Mortenson) and publisher argue that:
Mortenson—and all writers—are free to write anything, true or not, and that all authors are sheltered by the First Amendment, which protects free speech. People writing their autobiographies are constitutionally allowed "to exaggerate, to even lie" .... [I]t is virtually impossible to fact check a person's recollections used to tell their life story, and that if the case were to move forward it would damage the publishing industry and the right to free speech. ...
[I]f a publisher had to guarantee the truth and accuracy of everything an author wrote, the expense of publishing books would be prohibitive. "No standards exist for drawing the line where fiction becomes non fiction or vice versa ... and the courts are not a proper place for developing such standards or policing that line. ...
Although I studied communications law decades ago as an undergraduate and graduate student in journalism, I'm no attorney. But I'd say the First Amendment does protect writers (and their publishers) against charges of fraud in cases like these.

I'm curious, though, what existing court rulings say about actions prompted by false information that's been published. If that fale information had a direct impact on a reader, causing injury, financial loss or illegal behavior, could the writer and publisher be held liable? I recall reading published statements on various products and websites that relinquish all liability of the publisher and writer for things that might happen to users and readers.

I'd like to hear from someone more knowledgeable than I am on this topic. Of course, the eventual court ruling will also be enlightening.


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