As a writer, the story you choose to tell – and how you choose to tell it – is solely your province. It’s one of the reasons you write. While it’s a rare occurrence in the world of fiction, if your story includes real, living people (and remember that in our country, corporations are people too), you may be at risk of a libel or invasion privacy claim. Understanding the legal limitations imposed on your fiction will provide some guidance for dancing around the potential dangers.
In Georgia, libel is “a false and malicious defamation of another, expressed in print, writing, pictures, or signs, tending to injure the reputation of the person and exposing him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.” In addition, falsely accusing someone of sexual immorality, of criminal behavior, or of being infected with a contagious disease such as Ebola or HIV/AIDS may give rise to a claim of defamation per se, and the claimant doesn’t even have to prove any damages. For any libel claim to be successful, the defamatory work must be published.
Authors should also concern themselves with avoiding a claim of invasion of privacy rights. Georgia recognizes the four common law claims for invasion of privacy:
- intrusion upon solitude or seclusion, which typically involves spying on someone;
- public disclosure of private facts, by publishing private or secret information about a person that is offensive and objectionable to a reasonable man of ordinary sensibilities under the circumstances;
- appropriation of name or likeness; and
- “false light,” where false information is spread that depicts the person in an untruthful and highly offensive manner to a reasonable person.
The First Amendment gives great latitude to write most anything about most anybody, but state law serves to protect those who may have been legally damaged by such writing. Bear in mind that with few exceptions, you can’t libel the dead and their right to privacy expires with them. So how do you write around a living person in order to avoid a claim of libel or invasion of privacy, whether or not the claimant may ultimately prevail? Continue reading