Public position is key in defamation case

A decision Monday that acquitted a businessman of a criminal libel allegation approaches the U.S. standard in public officials and defamation. The fact that the person bringing the allegation was Laura Chinchilla figured heavily in the verdict.

Costa Rica continues to maintain the crime of defamation while many other countries have eliminated defamation as a crime and, instead, treat slander and libel as a civil matter.

The three-judge panel appears to be swayed by the position that Ms. Chinchilla held at the time, president.

In U.S. courts a public official seeking a civil settlement faces the very high standard of actual malice. That is, that the public official claiming the injury must show that the person who uttered the libel knew or should have known that the allegation was false. That standard is so high that few public officials go to court.

A few U.S. states still have criminal libel on the books, but that crime usually is reserved for silencing someone who has become unwelcome to officialdom.  An example would be someone who attends public meetings to harangue public officials or who writes defamatory flyers.

The actual malice threshold in the United States also is the standard for public figures, like movie stars.

The businessman, Alberto Rodríguez Baldi, made comments about Ms. Chinchilla on a Facebook page. The comments about land ownership are believed to be false. But the court also seemed to adopt a concept from Illinois law that if an innocent meaning exists for the statements involved, the innocent meaning should be assumed. That position might be made more clear when the full decision is released.

The Chinchilla case points out that the increased use of the internet, Facebook and other social media opens the door for libel and other false statements.

The writer of a Facebook comment does not have to submit the words to an editor. The individual is free to make the most outrageous comments. The Electronic Frontier foundation has a legal guide for bloggers online HERE!

Ms. Chinchilla also has another real problem with her case. She sought 100 million colons in damages. Her lawyers would have been hard-pressed to show any damages based on an obscure Facebook posting.

She still has the option of appealing the verdict.

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