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.

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Comments on “Is Quoting Someone Out Of Context Defamation?”

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26 Comments
Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Christopher (profile) says:

Re: 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.

ReallyEvilCanine (profile) says:

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.

kyle clements (profile) says:

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?

jsl4980 (profile) says:

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.

out_of_the_blue says:

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.

Ron Rezendes (profile) says:

Re: 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.

K. Rinaya (user link) says:

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.

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