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Walter Williams: We don't need bad speech laws

| Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, 8:57 p.m.
President Donald Trump, center, accompanied by from left, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., Vice President Mike Pence, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaks after participating in a Congressional Republican Leadership Retreat at Camp David, Md., Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
President Donald Trump, center, accompanied by from left, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Ky., Vice President Mike Pence, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, R-La., and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, speaks after participating in a Congressional Republican Leadership Retreat at Camp David, Md., Saturday, Jan. 6, 2018. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

President Donald Trump said, “We are going to take a strong look at our country's libel laws so that when somebody says something that is false and defamatory about someone, that person will have meaningful recourse in our courts.” He was responding to statements in Michael Wolff's new book, “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House.”

Our nation does not need stronger laws against libel. To the contrary, libel and slander laws should be repealed.

The legal profession defines libel as a published false statement, and slander as a spoken false statement, that is damaging to a person's reputation. But there's a question about reputation that never crosses even the sharpest legal minds: Does one's reputation belong to him?

In other words, if one's reputation is what others think about him, whose property are other people's thoughts? The thoughts I have in my mind about others, and hence their reputations, belong to me.

One major benefit from decriminalizing libel and slander would be reducing gossip's value. It would reduce the value of false statements made by others.

Here's a Gallup poll question: “In general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media — such as newspapers, TV and radio — when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly — a great deal, a fair amount, not very much or none at all?” In 1976, 72 percent of Americans trusted the media; today, 32 percent do. The mainstream media are so biased that more and more Americans are using alternative news sources, which have become increasingly available electronically.

While we're talking about bad laws dealing with libel and slander, let's raise some questions about other laws involving speech — namely, blackmail laws. The legal profession defines blackmail as occurring when someone demands money from a person in return for not revealing compromising or injurious information. I believe people should not be prosecuted for blackmail. Let's examine it with the following scenario.

It's 5 o'clock in the morning. You see me leaving a motel with a sweet young thing who's obviously not Mrs. Williams. You say to me, “Professor Williams, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees me the right to broadcast to the entire world your conduct that I observed.” I believe that most would agree that you have that right.

You then make this proposition: “If you pay me $10,000, I will not exercise my right to tell the world about your behavior.”

Now the ball is in my court. I have a right to turn down your proposition, or I can pay you the $10,000 — and live with the consequences of my decision.

In other words, blackmail fits into the category of peaceable, noncoercive voluntary exchange, just like most other transactions. If I'm seen voluntarily giving up $10,000, the only conclusion a third party could reach is that I must have viewed myself as being better off as a result.

By the way, married people would tend to find blackmail in their interest. Extra eyes on their spouse's behavior, in pursuit of money, would help to ensure greater marital fidelity.

Walter Williams is a professor of economics at George Mason University.

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