Are libel laws immoral? Libel is so not easy to define yet depending on how it may be interpreted, all satire and caricature can be considered libel. Isn't the mark of a free society being able to say whatever one wants, even if it amounts to character assassination? Character assassinations can always be defended in the court of public opinion without resorting to courts of law.

Your suggestion that all libel laws are immoral seems to be based on the premise implicit in this rhetorical question: "Isn't the mark of a free society being able to say whatever one wants, even if it amounts to character assassination?" But why think that? As near as I can tell, more or less all of the societies that we usually think of as by and large free have libel and/or defamation laws, and so if the freedom to say anything you like about anyone, in any venue, without legal consequences, were the mark of a free society, it would follow that there are no free societies. But that conclusion would rely on using the phrase "free society" in a way that very few people would find plausible.

Turning to the substance, it's not easy to com up with good reasons why a society should do without libel laws. Your suggestion is that the "court of public opinion" is the alternative. But what if someone libels you and it costs your your job? What if it not only costs you the job you had, but marks you as a scoundrel and keeps you from getting another job? How, exactly, are you going to appeal to the "court of public opinion" to restore your good name or provide compensation for the harm that was done to you by the libel? For my own part, if I were in that position and I couldn't turn to the courts, I would have more or less no idea how to work the levers of public opinion to recover from the damage.

People can deliberately harm you in many ways. Many of those ways aren't tolerated by the law. If you steal my wallet, you can end up in jail. But if you deliberately rob me of my good name, you may do me far more harm. Shakespeare's Iago may have been a villain, but he was right about that.

Libel laws can be too strict, of course, but that's not the question. Bad libel laws might indeed have the result that satire and caricature would count as libel. But at least in the United States (and in many other countries) libel laws don't work that way. If the question is whether libel laws are immoral by nature, then I think we'd need better reasons before we said yes.

Read another response by Allen Stairs
Read another response about Ethics, Law