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Defamation Law and Social Attitudes

Ordinary Unreasonable People Roy Baker, Macquarie University, Australia
Drawing on a thorough examination of case law, as well as extensive empirical research, including surveys involving over 4,000 members of the general public, interviews with judges and legal practitioners and focus groups representing various sections of the community, this book concludes that the law reflects fundamental misperceptions about what people think and how they are influenced by the media. The result is that the law tends to operate so as to unfairly disadvantage publishers, thus contributing to defamation law’s infamous ‘chilling effect’ on free speech.
Extent: 360 pp
Hardback Price: £109.00 Web: £98.10
Publication Date: 2011
ISBN: 978 0 85793 943 2
Availability: In Stock
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The common law determines whether a publication is defamatory by considering how ‘ordinary reasonable people’ would respond to it. But how does the law work in practice? Who are these ‘ordinary reasonable people’ and what do they think? This book examines the psychology behind how judges, juries and lawyers decide what is defamatory.

Drawing on a thorough examination of case law, as well as extensive empirical research, including surveys involving over 4,000 members of the general public, interviews with judges and legal practitioners and focus groups representing various sections of the community, this book concludes that the law reflects fundamental misperceptions about what people think and how they are influenced by the media. The result is that the law tends to operate so as to unfairly disadvantage publishers, thus contributing to defamation law’s infamous ‘chilling effect’ on free speech.

This unique and controversial book will appeal to judges, defamation law practitioners and scholars in various common law jurisdictions, media outlets, academics engaged in researching and teaching torts and media law, as well as those working within the disciplines of media or communications studies and psychology. Anyone concerned with the law’s interaction with public opinion, as well as how people interpret the media will find much to interest them in this fascinating study.
‘Because the law of defamation is about reputation and thus necessarily about community and social attitudes, Baker’s serious empirical analysis of just those community and social attitudes about defamation and about reputation is a novel and important contribution to the literature on libel and slander. It will be a useful corrective to the various empirically unsupported assertions that dominate the court cases and the academic literature on the topic.’
– Frederick Schauer, University of Virginia, US

‘This book shines a welcome light on a neglected area of defamation law: how juries and judges determine what it means to say a statement is defamatory. The author employs well-designed empirical research to provide concrete answers, and the reform he proposes is sensible and workable. The book should be must-reading for anyone who seeks to understand how the law does or does not protect reputation – especially lawyers and judges who try libel cases.’
– David A. Anderson, University of Texas Law School, US

‘When defamation jurors decide whether a statement about someone is “defamatory”, the question for them to answer is whether it would generate disapproval among “ordinary reasonable people”. It has generally been assumed that they answer this question correctly. What Roy Baker discovered through empirical research is that this assumption may often be wrong. This fascinating and important book sets out his findings, alongside a broad-ranging and perceptive analysis of the law’s approach to defining “defamatory”.’
– Michael Chesterman, The University of New South Wales, Australia

‘This refreshingly original work is an essential addition to the libraries of all defamation aficionados. Through empirical evidence, including interviews with judges and practitioners, and surveys of the general public, Dr Baker convincingly demonstrates the human propensity to overestimate the negative effect that defamatory imputations may have on other people (“the third person effect”). The conventional “ordinary reasonable person” test becomes in practice an “ordinary unreasonable person” test, regrettably lowering the defamation threshold and further curtailing freedom of communication.’
– Michael Gillooly, The University of Western Australia
Contents: 1. Introduction Part I: Asking the Defamation Question 2. Formulating the Test for Defamation 3. Refining the Test 4. Applying the Test Part II: Answering the Defamation Question 5. The Lawyers’ Answers 6. The Public’s Answers 7. The Third-Person Effect 8. Accommodating the Third-Person Effect 9. Conclusion Bibliography Index