Should slander be protected as free speech?

Home » BLOGS » Liberator Online Archives » Should slander be protected as free speech?

(By Dr. Mary Ruwart from Ask Dr. Ruwart, Volume 18, No. 14 of the Liberator Online. Subscribe here.)

QUESTION: I have questions about a past column of yours on the topic of blackmail. You wrote: “Many libertarians consider slander of a person’s reputation to be a violation of the non-aggression principle; others don’t.”

I’m confused. It seems to me that slander should be protected as free speech in a libertarian society. There’s no aggression involved. So what’s the problem?

MY SHORT ANSWER: Not all libertarians agree on whether or not a lie constitutes aggression. A lie does not necessarily affect only one’s reputation. For example, a service provider could be put out of business by a well-publicized lie and lose all their assets before they were able to set the record straight. I have actually seen this happen to a publically-traded company, where stockholders lost their investments and the employees lost their jobs.

Does a person have the right to free speech? Of course! Must they take responsibility for the consequences of their speech? That is the real question.

For example, if a person purposely yells “Fire!” in a crowded theatre, and people are killed in the stampede, is he or she guilty of manslaughter if there was no fire? The person yelling “Fire!” has the right to free speech, certainly. Must that person pay restitution to those who are injured or the survivors of those killed?

What if the person thought they smelled smoke and truly believed that there was a fire? They were trying to help people and didn’t lie, but the result was the same. Are they responsible for the dead and injured?

This is where libertarians disagree over this issue. Some libertarians would agree with you that the only consequences that a liar should have to face is damage to his or her reputation, regardless of the consequences of that lie. Others believe that a liar is responsible for the resulting damage.

LEARN MORE: Suggestions for further reading on this topic from Liberator Online editor James W. Harris:

As Mary Ruwart notes, libertarians disagree on these issues. Below are examples of differing views.

* Ayn Rand on libel and slander: In the book Ayn Rand Answers: The Best of Her Q & A, Rand answers the question “What do you think of libel and slander laws?” in this way:

“They are appropriate laws, because the freedom of ideas does not permit you to lie about a person. Under the older interpretation of the courts, truth was your defense. If you know something defamatory about someone, and it’s true, then you have the right to say it. But today, you can practically say anything, so long as you’re supposedly not motivated by malice. There are some standards, but they are unclear and impractical.

“This type of law is strictly to protect specific individuals; it has nothing to do with ideas. It’s an issue of whether or not you lied about someone, and caused him damage.”

* Murray Rothbard on libel and slander: In his book The Ethics of Liberty Rothbard argues that libel and slander, while immoral, should not be illegal:

EXCERPT: “Smith has a property right to the ideas or opinions in his own head; he also has a property right to print anything he wants and disseminate it. He has a property right to say that Jones is a ‘thief’ even if he knows it to be false, and to print and sell that statement.

“The counter-view, and the current basis for holding libel and slander (especially of false statements) to be illegal is that every man has a ‘property right’ in his own reputation, that Smith’s falsehoods damage that reputation, and that therefore Smith’s libels are invasions of Jones’s property right in his reputation and should be illegal.

“Yet, again, on closer analysis this is a fallacious view. For everyone, as we have stated, owns his own body; he has a property right in his own head and person. But since every man owns his own mind, he cannot therefore own the minds of anyone else. And yet Jones’s ‘reputation’ is neither a physical entity nor is it something contained within or on his own person. Jones’s ‘reputation’ is purely a function of the subjective attitudes and beliefs about him contained in the minds of other people. But since these are beliefs in the minds of others, Jones can in no way legitimately own or control them. Jones can have no property right in the beliefs and minds of other people.”

* * * * * * * * * *

Got questions?  Dr. Ruwart has answers! If you’d like answers to YOUR “tough questions” on libertarian issues, email Dr. Ruwart

Due to volume, Dr. Ruwart can’t personally acknowledge all emails. But we’ll run the best questions and answers in upcoming issues.

Dr. Ruwart’s previous Liberator Online answers are archived in searchable form.

Dr. Ruwart’s brand new book Short Answers to the Tough Questions, Expanded Edition is available from the Advocates, as is her acclaimed classic Healing Our World.

in Liberator Online Archives by Mary Ruwart Comments are off
About the author: Mary Ruwart

Dr. Mary Ruwart is a leading expert in libertarian communication and author of the international bestseller Healing Our World. She is also author of Short Answers to Tough Questions, in which you will find a collection of her answers from this column. In this column she provides Liberator Online readers with answers to questions libertarians are often asked. Dr. Ruwart is a research scientist, ethicist, and a libertarian author/activist. She received her B.S. in biochemistry in 1970 and her Ph.D. in Biophysics in 1974 (both from Michigan State University). She subsequently joined the Department of Surgery at St. Louis University and left her Assistant Professorship there to accept a position with The Upjohn Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1976. As a senior research scientist, Dr. Ruwart was involved in developing new therapies for a variety of diseases, including liver cirrhosis and AIDS. Dr. Ruwart left Upjohn in 1995 to devote her time to consulting and writing. Her communications course for scientists (www.speakingforscientists.com), covering written, oral, and poster presentations has received high praise from attendees. She also provides consulting services for nutraceutical companies, clinical research organizations, and universities. Currently, Dr. Ruwart serves as Chair of the International Society for Individual Liberty (www.isil.org) and Secretary of the Foundation for a Free Society (www.f4fs.org). She has been an At-Large member of the Libertarian National Committee (www.lp.org), served on the Board of both the Heartland Institute (www.heartland.org; Michigan Chapter) and the Fully Informed Jury Amendment Association (www.fija.org).