Godfrey’s musings: Should you sue someone for defamation? (Part 19)

If you’ve been aware of the news over the past year or so, you’d know that defamation suits are all the rage these days.  Simply, if someone makes a derogatory comment about you to someone else, and that comment injures your reputation, that comment would be a defamatory comment.  You would be entitled to sue the person making the defamatory comment to compensate for the damages which you have suffered.

Do you have a good reputation?

A defamatory comment lowers your reputation in the eyes of right-thinking members of society, exposing you to hatred, contempt, or ridicule.  But before you consider suing everyone who defames you, you must actually have a reputation to begin with.  If you have no reputation to begin with, how can a statement lower it?  Or, if your reputation can’t be more worse, your reputation cannot be any more damaged, right?

Are you a public figure?

If you are a public figure, it’s more difficult for you to sue.  In law, there’s a defence called “fair comment.”  Fair comment protects freedom of opinion on matters of public interest.  If you’re a public figure, and someone calls you a “womaniser,” he can argue that whether you (a public figure) are a womaniser is a matter of public interest.  But this defence can be defeated by actual malice, i.e. if he knows you’re not a womaniser.

What if you’re actually a womaniser?

If you’re actually a womaniser, then what the “defamer” said would be truth, and he could say what he said was justified.  Even if he can prove that it’s not completely, but substantially true, i.e. a number of women (and they hate your guts because you broke their hearts in the past) testify that you’ve flirted with them throughout the years, he’s probably still entitled to “substantial”, or even “partial,” justification.

What if the defamatory comments are made in LegCo?

Since you’re a public figure, you might also be an honourable legislative council member.  Statements made during sessions of legislative council are protected by absolute privilege, so you can rest assured insulting your enemies in chambers.  Article 77 of the Basic Law provides that members of the Legislative Council shall be immune from legal action in respect of their statements at meetings of the Council.

Interestingly, however, Professor Lau Siu-kai, previous head of the Central Policy Unit advising the Chief Executive, warned in his latest book that Beijing could very well issue an interpretation on Article 77.  Lau said that any pro-independence activists elected as lawmakers should not enjoy such immunity because their advocacy violated Article 1 of the Basic Law, which states Hong Kong is an inalienable part of China.  But since you’re a well respected public figure, you know better to be politically correct.

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