Is Quoting Someone Out Of Context Defamation?

from the in-the-9th-circuit... dept

Earlier this year, there was certainly plenty of discussion in the political news business of the Shirley Sherrod incident, where Andrew Breitbart posted a video of Sherrod speaking, which implied she had made certain decisions on the basis of skin color. However, after Sherrod was fired from her job at the USDA, it quickly came out that the video clips of Sherrod speaking were taken totally out of context, and the message of the speech was completely the opposite of what had been implied. This quickly resulted in a scramble as pretty much every publication in the world covering the story wrote articles questioning whether or not she had a legitimate case of libel.

Of course, as with any highly politically charged legal discussion, it often appeared that those picking a side over whether or not she had a case might have been somewhat influenced by their political views on the matter. However, much of the discussion focused on what Breitbart said separately in relation to the video, rather than the video itself. Still, a recent case may bring the video back into discussion.

Michael Scott points us to the news of a recent ruling against newscaster John Stossel for allegedly posting video that was apparently taken out of context, and while a lower court protected him via California's anti-SLAPP law, an appeals court has ruled that the defamation case can move forward over the video. It doesn't mean that the defamation claim will necessarily stand, but the video edit and context apparently is seen as grounds for a potential defamation claim:
Of course, Breitbart claims he didn't edit the video in the Sherrod case, which then raises other legal questions about whether or not he's protected himself on the video part, and whether or not he can use journalist shield laws to protect the "source" who provided him the video. All in all, while I can understand the desire to push a libel case in such situations, I do wonder if it actually results in much good. At this point, it's difficult to find anyone who isn't familiar with the "full story" of what happened with the out-of-context video, so it's not about "correcting" false info that's out there. Still, this latest ruling is a reminder that if you happen to quote someone out of context, you may risk a defamation claim.


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 22nd, 2010 @ 11:08pm

    Taking words out of context to intentionally defame or harm someone's reputation should be considered libel/slander. If I said something like "I can't believe people could honestly belive (random racial slur)" and someone else then quoted me as having said "(random racial slur)" and purposefully removed my negation, contempt for, etc, of said racial slur, then that is definitely libel/slander.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2.  
    identicon
    ReallyEvilCanine, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:16am

    Quoting out of context isn't illegal

    But misrepresentation and malicious intent are. Taking a small clip of a Sherrod speech out of context at least was intellectually dishonest but not necessarily illegal. Stringing a number of these clips together with the intent of complete misrepresentation probably is, though I can't say for certain since it won't be my ass on the bench hearing the arguments. It's certainly not going to find any safe harbour in a claim of satire.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3.  
    icon
    kyle clements (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:26am

    if this is the case

    If this is the case that taking things out of context can be a form of libel, could this put all those "intelligent design" supporters at risk?

    Those websites are a perfect example of quote-mining and distorting the words of others to make a point that is the exact opposite of what the original person actually said.

    As happy as I would be to see those sites go, I fear for the potential harm to free speech.
    What about unintentional quote mining? What if I innocently repeat an out-of-context quote?
    What if I deconstruct an argument and they think I was quote mining?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4.  
    icon
    Karl (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 12:42am

    Defamation

    Is Quoting Someone Out Of Context Defamation?

    Of course it is not.

    And if you quote me saying otherwise, I'll sue!

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5.  
    identicon
    Yogi, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 2:18am

    WTF?

    If quoting someone out Of context becomes illegal, what the hell will newspapers and TV do for a living?

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 3:58am

    I don't believe those things are for courts to decide, people do a pretty good job spotting those things and punishing the people involved.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 4:46am

    Re: Defamation

    >Is Quoting Someone Out Of Context Defamation?

    >Of course it is not.

    >And if you quote me saying otherwise, I'll sue!

    To more properly quote Karl on what he should have meant-
    Of course it is not.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 4:53am

    Re: Re: Defamation

    whoops to correctly quote Karl it should be- Of course it is (STRIKE)not(/Strike). Too bad that html tag is disabled.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 5:25am

    Re: Defamation

    It's ironic in that by using a small clip from a speech to maintain a fair use defence that one would then be open to a libel suit. On the other hand to use the whole speech could open one up to a copyright infringement claim.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 5:40am

    If she wins this case them fox news will be screwed. Every video they ever show is out of context.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  11.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 5:53am

    Re: Re: Defamation

    "a small clip from a speech to maintain a fair use defence"

    It's interesting how this may be a valid concern and yet it is ok to quote her entire speech in text.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  12.  
    identicon
    Ty, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 6:24am

    Missing the point of the video

    Of course, the point of his video was the reaction of the people in the crowd to her story. He wasn't trying to get Sherrod in trouble. He was showing that the people in the audience were pleased with the story of her denying help to the white farmer.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  13.  
    icon
    Karl (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 6:33am

    Re: Re: Re: Defamation

    That's it, bub, I'm suing.

    Your Lack Of HTML Skills armor is nothing against my +8 Vorpal Sword of Law!

    ...Okay, even I'm ashamed that I wrote that last sentence.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  14.  
    identicon
    out_of_the_blue, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 6:39am

    By strange coincidence, Breitbart and Stossel both neo-cons.

    There's no doubt in the Sherrod case that the intent was to put over the exact opposite of her total comments. The Stossel case is no doubt more nuanced, but his agenda is clear -- last time I saw him, many years ago. Out of context is merely a tool in the whole neo-con deception. They're usually quite nasty and bold liars. These cases need full discovery and public trial -- by juries.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  15.  
    icon
    ofb2632 (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 6:56am

    Faux news

    If this lawsuit pans out, Faux news has alot to be worried about

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  16.  
    icon
    jsl4980 (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 7:13am

    Re: Missing the point of the video

    Very true. Breitbart's intent was to show the crowd's reaction, and not to claim that Sherrod was a racist. I can't stand Breitbart, but it is important to get the facts straight.

    If Breitbart can be sued for defamation, then he should also be able to sue the news stations that took his message and intent out of context as well. He never meant to attack or defame Sherrod, but to show the crowd's reaction. So his message has been taken out of context just as Sherrod's quotes were taken out of context.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  17.  
    identicon
    Jesse, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 8:31am

    It seems like a more reasonable approach would be suing the employer for wrongful dismissal. I mean the libel, perhaps, makes sense...but come on, the employer needs to have an actual reason to fire someone.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  18.  
    identicon
    Anonymous Coward, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 8:32am

    @3 HUH?

    it would be better if what i say is and should be used in full context of its meaning
    george bush and his numpty colin powel also were famous for taking words out of context...if this be true perhaps i should sue them from canada

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  19.  
    identicon
    PRMan, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 8:56am

    Are you kidding?

    Most Christian organizations would be owed billions if you could sue for taking their comments out of context. This happens so often that an 80s Christian band named Crumbacher wrote a song about it:

    "Though cameras never lie, the edits often do..."

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  20.  
    icon
    Ron Rezendes (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 9:13am

    It's called at-will employment

    Not in California and many other states - you do NOT need a reason to fire someone. From Wikipedia:
    At-will employment is a doctrine of American law that defines an employment relationship in which either party can break the relationship with no liability, provided there was no express contract for a definite term governing the employment relationship and that the employer does not belong to a collective bargain (i.e., has not recognized a union). Under this legal doctrine:
    “ any hiring is presumed to be "at will"; that is, the employer is free to discharge individuals "for good cause, or bad cause, or no cause at all," and the employee is equally free to quit, strike, or otherwise cease work.[1] ”
    Several exceptions to the doctrine exist, especially if unlawful discrimination is involved regarding the termination of an employee.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  21.  
    icon
    Christopher (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 3:20pm

    Re:

    I was going to take the opposite viewpoint to this, but then I remembered the numerous times someone on the internet has taken my statements out of context and made people think I was saying one thing when I was really saying another, so I have to agree that this should be slander.

    Whenever someone's statements are being given, it should be THE WHOLE STATEMENT IN QUESTION!

    For goodness sakes, you can make someone look like they support rapists by taking their comments out of context, when if you had the ENTIRE statement, you would see that they were saying that we have extended the definition of 'rapist' out too far in their opinion.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  22.  
    icon
    Christopher (profile), Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 3:21pm

    Re: WTF?

    Hmm...... maybe, just maybe, give the ENTIRE statements and not their 'picked and chosen' statements?

    I see this as being a BOON with the news organizations and making things a lot more fair.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  23.  
    identicon
    Tex, Sep 23rd, 2010 @ 6:16pm

    Another SLAPP Lawsuit

    Here's another SLAPP lawsuit, and Amway lost BIG TIME last month: http://texsquixtarblog.blogspot.com/2010/08/amway-lawsuit-update-dont-mess-with.html

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  24.  
    icon
    DanVan (profile), Sep 24th, 2010 @ 12:35pm

    If it is done on purpose to make the person look bad, of course

    If not, then no

    It seems clear to me that people editing things to say something wrong AND with the intent of making the person look bad....is and should be clearly illegal

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  25.  
    identicon
    K. Rinaya, Sep 26th, 2010 @ 8:40pm

    It's about more than the tape

    It's about more than the tape. I think that many of Breitbart's supporters would like to have this sort of buried.
    A tape may be utterly true but the actions of publishing may be libelous when the written description of the tape is libelous.
    So in addition to the tape, Breitbart may have engaged in libel in two other ways:
    1) the words he used to describe the tape;
    2) the words others used to describe the tape, that he, as an editor and publisher, was responsible for publishing.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  26.  
    icon
    Idobek (profile), Sep 30th, 2010 @ 2:41am

    Polititians would have to be exempt...

    They only ever quote each other out of context.

     

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Save me a cookie
  • Note: A CRLF will be replaced by a break tag (<br>), all other allowable HTML will remain intact
  • Allowed HTML Tags: <b> <i> <a> <em> <br> <strong> <blockquote> <hr> <tt>
Follow Techdirt
A word from our sponsors...
Essential Reading
Techdirt Reading List
Techdirt Insider Chat
A word from our sponsors...
Recent Stories
A word from our sponsors...

Close

Email This