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How Not to Get Sued for Libel While Writing a Biography

With yesterday’s Writing Challenge, we covered your ethical responsibility in writing a biography. For today’s Writing Rule though, we go from publishing a strongly worded suggestion to issuing a flat-out imperative.

Here’s the thing. Anyone writing a biography should do their research and cite their sources out of respect alone…

Respect for the star of the book as something more than just a money maker or propaganda piece. Respect for the reader as an intelligent person craving growth. And respect for yourself as a professional.

None of these aspects should ever be taken lightly.

But there is another reason to stay as aboveboard as possible while writing a biography. Legally speaking, there’s no wiggle room here. If you’re caught breaking this Writing Rule, you could suffer enormously.

As well you should if you broke it on purpose.

Getting sued for libel isn’t fun.

When writing fiction, you can get away with all-out literary murder when dealing with famous people. Though non-famous people are more tricky.

Then there’s non-fiction, where you run even more risk. As such, I should probably state that I am not a lawyer, nor can I offer official or unofficial legal advice.

I can just direct you to some worthwhile resources and beg you not to get sued for libel as a biography writer.

In this regard, – which bills itself as “one of the very first online law and government information sites” – is a decent place to start. It has a solid (or seemingly solid to this non-lawyer editor) explanation about how matters of libel fall under the category of defamation law.

Libel is defamatory statements and/or pictures published in print or writing; or broadcast in the media, such as over the radio, on TV or in film. The publication does not need to be made to more than one person to qualify as libel. However, it must be represented as a fact, not an opinion. If one libels the reputation of a deceased person, the target's heirs may be able to bring an action for damages.

What exactly could those damages be? As Kelly Warner Law’s site explains, that depends on three primary factors:

  • "The amount of money... the plaintiff lost as a direct result of the defamatory statement”

  • The plaintiff’s public status [as mentioned in the Writing Rule above]

  • The specific state or country’s libel laws.

Admittedly, this post could completely scare you off from writing a biography, which is not Innovative Editing’s intention. Far from it.

To prove as much, here’s a third source that might soothe your authorial mind. The New York City Bar has an excellent page on the subject, asking and answering questions, including:

  • What are the elements of a defamation case?

  • I did an interview with a local reporter and I mistakenly admitted to something that was false. The statement has been published and my reputation has been damaged. Can I sue for defamation?

  • I am a celebrity, and I want to stop tabloids from printing scurrilous rumors and false accusations about me that harm my reputation with my fans. Can I sue for libel?

Anyone writing a biography can flip the subsequent answers around quite easily to see how they’re protected as well. The exact wording of libel laws aren't just to protect people from libel. They also protect people from being falsely accused of defamation.

Therefore, just as long as you properly research your subject and cite your sources, you should be safe from getting sued.

That’s this editor’s take on the legal side of writing a biography. More than likely, you’ll never have to deal with libel laws. But when writing something meant to be published, isn't it better safe than sorry?

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