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Defamation by Half-Truth:

Generally speaking, modern defamation law applies only to false statements; but at some point a literally true statement may so strongly carry a false connotation that the speaker could be held liable for the implied falsehood despite the literal truth. I've often looked for a good example of this, and I just found one, in an early 1960s case (though it's been around outside the defamation context at least since 1916): The first mate who, upset by his teetotaling captain, writes in the ship's log,

Captain sober today.

H.P. Grice's work on conversational implicatures, by the way relates to this.

Logic Checker:
The usual way this story is told is that the Captain writes in the log: "First mate drunk all day". The mate sees this and is angry, so writes in the log the next day: "Captain sober all day."
3.2.2009 7:58pm
JLS:
How about this: "John didn't stop beating his wife today."
3.2.2009 8:03pm
Randy R. (mail):
"I am not a crook."
3.2.2009 8:09pm
Randy R. (mail):
And in the spirit of bipartisanship:

" I did not have sex with that woman."
3.2.2009 8:11pm
ChrisTS (mail):
Randy R: I'm sorry, but I don't see how those examples are .. examples - not of what the Prof. was discussing.
3.2.2009 8:17pm
Visitor Again:
He has never resigned from the Communist Party (or, if that's not libelous, from the Pedophilia Club).
3.2.2009 8:19pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
nn
3.2.2009 8:26pm
JLS:
He didn't grope his secretary today--she was out sick.
3.2.2009 8:31pm
R:
She has a great personality.
3.2.2009 8:42pm
albert:
Eugene wrote: I've often looked for a good example of this, and I just found one, in an early 1960s case


but you didn't give us the cite!
3.2.2009 8:48pm
Sean Gleeson (mail):
Turner v. KTRK (PDF):

"a plaintiff can bring a claim for defamation when discrete facts, literally or substantially true, are published in such a way that they create a substantially false and defamatory impression by omitting material facts or juxtaposing facts in a misleading way."
3.2.2009 11:13pm
Randy R. (mail):
Maybe my examples don't work. I was thinking along the lines that when you have to protest something, then it's probably true, or at least that people think it is true. Hence, claiming you are not a crook can only be said in the context that someone has accused you of being a crook and thinks that you are.

As with the Bill Clinton example, he said he didn't have sex with that woman, leaving open the possibility that he had sex with other women, which may or may not include his wife.

Okay, perhaps that's stretching.
3.2.2009 11:41pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
While this is a valid example of a statement that is literally true but has a false implicature, it isn't an example of libel, is it? Does writing in a ship's log constitute publication?
3.3.2009 2:32am
wooga:
I think this works:

"The Captain, being of the most impeccable moral standards and personal hygiene, refrained today from buggering the syphilitic cabin boy."
3.3.2009 3:07am
BGates:
"Compassionate conservatism".
3.3.2009 5:06am
Arkady:
This kind of thing is, of course, closely related to the "veiled" insult (if not identical to), and I've always appreciated Noel Coward's efforts in this arena.


From one of his plays--

Director to actress: I deeply respect almost everything you've ever done.



Coward on being told that a mutual acquaintance had committed suicide by shooting himself through the brain:

Damned fine shot, that.



(The following don't really satisfy the criterion, but they're pretty good anyway.)

Coward on travelling abroad during the age of steam:

I always take French liners because there's none of that nonsense about women and children first.


Director on actress above:
She can't have an idea, her brain isn't large enough.



3.3.2009 6:50am
Charlie Hallinan (mail):
Not an example, but a succinct statement of the principle from Benjamin Franklin: "Half the Truth is often a great lie." (Poor Richard's Almanack.)
3.3.2009 11:00am
Crafty Hunter (www):
"The sole reason why I don't call Joe Random a sheep-buggerer is because I don't want to be sued."
3.3.2009 11:55am
Dan Weber (www):
Lawyer: Did you have an affair with the defendant in California?
Witness: I refuse to answer the question.
Lawyer: Did you have an affair with the defendant in Hawaii?
Witness: I refuse to answer the question.
Lawyer: Did you have an affair with the defendant in Montana?
Witness: No.
3.3.2009 11:57am
SeaDrive:
As I understand it, you can't libel a presidential candidate, but people certainly tried to defame both McCain and Obama with misleading truths. "Obama lives in the same neighborhood as Ayers but has not repudiated him." "Obama brushed elbows with ACORN but has not repudiated it programs." Etc.
3.3.2009 11:58am
elscorcho (mail):

As I understand it, you can't libel a presidential candidate, but people certainly tried to defame both McCain and Obama with misleading truths. "Obama lives in the same neighborhood as Ayers but has not repudiated him." "Obama brushed elbows with ACORN but has not repudiated it programs." Etc.


That is perfect example of you libeling the people who told the truth about Obama. You leave out the fact that Obama did have a relationship with Ayers and Acorn and insinuate that they insinuated.
3.3.2009 12:07pm
BillW:
However, the race is most famous for a speech [George Smathers] never gave. A reporter made up a hoax that Smathers gave a speech to a rural audience using fancy words to create the implication that Pepper was sinister. Smathers reportedly had said, "Are you aware that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert? Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law, and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper before his marriage habitually practiced celibacy,"
3.3.2009 12:34pm
Tracy Johnson (www):
BillW,

A line once used by a morning radio talk show comedian in Los Angeles, I think it was KFI 640:

"Ms. A and Ms. B. are both thespians, I saw them both in a restaurant last night in public, masticating!"

What people said on the talk-show incoming line was precious. (And some played along, adding more puns to the mix.)
3.3.2009 12:57pm
mooglar (mail) (www):
There's a (perhaps apocryphal) story of a writer who asked an eminent author who was a friend of his to provide a blurb for the back of his new fantasy novel. The eminent author read the novel and just hated it. He was then in a quandary, as he didn't want to disappoint the writer by refusing to provide a blurb, but he also didn't want to lie.

In the end the eminent author responded with a blurb to the effect of, "A work of fantasy on par with Tolkien's 'The Lord of the Rings.'" The blurb went on the back of the novel and helped the novel's sales.

The eminent author, of course, despised 'The Lord of the Rings.'
3.3.2009 1:05pm
Eugene Volokh (www):
Bill Poser: For libel law purposes, "publication" means conveying the statement to anyone other than the allegedly libeled person. Writing in a ship's log, which presumably is meant to be read by others (e.g., the ship's owner, regulatory authorities, and so on), is publication. So is a classic example of a libel, writing a letter to a woman accusing her fiance of misconduct (or the same with the sexes reversed).

For the privacy torts -- such as disclosure of private facts and disclosure of information that places a person in a false light -- broader "publicity" (not just "publication") is generally required; private gossip is not covered. But for libel, the law is as i describe it above.
3.3.2009 1:46pm
Crunchy Frog:
Also closely related is the "left-handed compliment", which is most usually expressed by the following:

You're not as dumb as you look.

My own personal favorite:

You don't sweat much for a fat broad.
3.3.2009 2:24pm
Bill Poser (mail) (www):
EV,

Yes, I understand that "publication" need not be very public for the purposes of libel law, but I was wondering about the intended audience of a ship's log and whether it is not sufficiently limited that the author of the log entry is not entitled to qualified immunity.
3.3.2009 3:05pm
David Chesler (mail) (www):
Didn't "Captain sober today" come up in an "Exception proves the rule" thread last month, maybe regarding widely misunderstood phrases? If not, it should have.
3.3.2009 3:06pm
R:
This isn't exactly on subject, but it's related as it plays with what is in fact illegal to say. Also it's pretty funny.
3.3.2009 3:10pm
R:
This isn't exactly on subject, but it's related as it plays with what is in fact illegal to say. Also it's pretty funny.
3.3.2009 3:10pm
R:
Sorry for the double post and lack of the link.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QEQOvyGbBtY
3.3.2009 3:12pm
Splunge:
The President's latest appointment is actually not a tax cheat.

Of course, not all of Senator Durbin's supporters are imprisoned child molesters.

Critics have pointed out that there are certainly at least a few elderly lawyers in small backwater towns who aren't humorless intellectual whores displaying the ethics of Ichneumon wasps.

I wouldn't say every comment on this thread is pure drivel.

And so on.
3.3.2009 4:06pm
edward jones (mail):
When canned tuna first came onto the market, it competed with canned salmon. The tuna people came up with a slogan that illustrates using the truth to create a false impression: the slogan was "IT DOSEN"T TURN PINK IN THE CAN".
3.3.2009 4:44pm
EIDE_Interface (mail):
Rahm Emmanuel insists he's not a traitor.
3.3.2009 4:46pm
DrObviousSo:
Nope, the dress doesn't make you look fat.
3.3.2009 7:18pm
traveler496:
Steve? He would never seduce an underage girl [nudge nudge, wink wink].
3.3.2009 9:08pm
lucia (mail) (www):
From a blog:

As for the scope of the ethical risk, let us consider the possibility that the behavior of the Times and the Post this year increases the chance of an extreme event with a premature mortality of a billion people by a mere part per million, a per cent of a per cent of a per cent. The expected mortality from this is a thousand people. Is that morally equivalent to actually killing a thousand people? It's not all that obvious to me that it isn't.


What this statement may or may not imply has been debated at Pielke's blog.
3.4.2009 12:26pm

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