London, Ontario Councillor Bill Armstrong’s Defamation Lawsuit Raises an Important Question: Does Anyone have a ‘Right’ to a Reputation?

Lee Friday – April 19, 2018

London, Ontario councillor Bill Armstrong is suing “a London radio station … and four people — his 2014 election rival and three allies of hers — for $3.5 million, stemming from on-air reports and social-media commentary [during the 2014 election campaign] about his 1987 sexual assault conviction, for which he’s been pardoned.” Defendants have accused Armstrong of trying to silence his critics and want the lawsuit thrown out.

Armstrong says “there was significant damage to my reputation as a result of the statements made by the defendants.” Armstrong’s claim seems odd because the 2014 campaign ended with his re-election. For their part, one of the defendants “contends its reports on Armstrong were based on true facts …”

Does the lawsuit have merit? No, but this has nothing to do with Armstrong’s re-election or the truthfulness of the defendants’ comments. Quite simply, it should be illegal to forcefully extract ‘defamation damages’ from another person because no one has a right to a reputation.

No One Has a ‘Right’ to a Reputation

Economist Walter Williams wrote:

There’s a question about reputation that never crosses even the sharpest legal minds. Does one’s reputation belong to him? In other words, if one’s reputation is what others think about him, whose property are other people’s thoughts? The thoughts I have in my mind about others, and hence their reputations, belong to me.

In The Ethics of Liberty (p 126), Economist/Historian Murray Rothbard wrote:

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.

The Government Discriminates Against the Poor

Mirroring the effects of many other government policies, laws against defamation hurt poor people the most. As Rothbard wrote (pp 127 – 28):

We can, of course, readily concede the gross immorality of spreading false libels about another person. But we must, nevertheless, maintain the legal right of anyone to do so. Pragmatically, again, this situation may well redound to the benefit of the people being libelled. For, in the current situation, when false libels are outlawed, the average person tends to believe that all derogatory reports spread about people are true, “otherwise they’d sue for libel.” This situation discriminates against the poor, since poorer people are less likely to file suits against libellers.

Hence, the reputations of poorer or less wealthy persons are liable to suffer more now, when libel is outlawed, then they would if libel were legitimate. For in that libertarian society since everyone would know that false stories are legal, there would be far more skepticism on the part of the reading or listening public, who would insist on far more proof and believe fewer derogatory stories than they do now. Furthermore, the current system discriminates against poorer people in another way; for their own speech is restricted, since they are less likely to disseminate true but derogatory knowledge about the wealthy for fear of having costly libel suits filed against them. Hence, the outlawing of libel harms people of limited means in two ways: by making them easier prey for libels and by hampering their own dissemination of accurate knowledge about the wealthy.

Conclusion

In a free society, defamation would be a nonissue. No one would be able to use the courts to punish other people for the things they say or write. This does not mean an individual could not defend their reputation. It simply means they are left to their own non-coercive devices, as they should be. A good reputation for John Smith is built on, and defended by, the actions of Smith himself. This requires continual effort on the part of Smith.

If Councillor Armstrong is genuinely concerned about his reputation, it seems counterproductive for him to file a lawsuit. The various stages of the legal process elicit media coverage, which always highlights his 1987 sexual assault conviction. How does it help his reputation to keep this in the public eye? Is the lawsuit about his reputation, or is it about $3.5 million?

 

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