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Defining Defamation: Community in the Age of the Internet
Unformatted Document Text:  Introduction A man’s interest in his own reputation is likely one of the things he holds dearest, for his reputation colors all aspects of his life, including personal and professional relationships and transactions. Thus, the way society perceives a man may be more important than the way in which the man perceives himself. If, as it has been said, a man’s word is his bond, then his reputation for truth, integrity, virtue and the like are of paramount importance. Theoretically, perhaps, as long as a man leads an upstanding and honorable life, his reputation should remain above reproach. The difficulty of reputation lies in its point of origin: Reputation is not only how a man lives his life, but it is also how others endeavor to characterize his actions. 1 Thus, society has developed a system for protecting reputational interests from the harms inflicted by others’ characterizations. The defamation tort attempts to do that by protecting a man from the utterance of false factual assertions that would besmirch his reputation within his community. 2 In the early days of the tort, ascertaining a man’s community might have been as simple as discerning the members of his village or town. However, as society has become more technologically advanced and interconnected, a man’s community may no longer consist only of those who reside within shouting distance. As mass communication and rapid transportation have developed, a man’s community may instead consist of family in distant lands or business associates linked together by an interagency computer network. Indeed, a man’s community likely includes members with whom he has never had face-to-face contact. This 21st century community, united by the Internet, is a far cry from the framework in which the traditional law of libel developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. Although the ability to instantly communicate with a global audience has created legal uncertainties as jurists struggle to adapt age-old jurisprudence to modern-day technologies, such innovations also hold much potential to promote an environment conducive to free expression that has long been contemplated. The concept of community plays an important role in defamation litigation. Courts may use a plaintiff’s community to make several determinations critical to the litigation. First, the evaluation of the plaintiff’s community may be used to determine whether a statement actually contained a defamatory communication. 3 Second, courts may look to the plaintiff’s community to determine his status as a

Authors: Sanders, Amy.
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background image
Introduction 
A man’s interest in his own reputation is likely one of the things he holds dearest, for his reputation 
colors all aspects of his life, including personal and professional relationships and transactions.  Thus, the 
way society perceives a man may be more important than the way in which the man perceives himself.  If, 
as it has been said, a man’s word is his bond, then his reputation for truth, integrity, virtue and the like are 
of paramount importance.  Theoretically, perhaps, as long as a man leads an upstanding and honorable 
life, his reputation should remain above reproach.  The difficulty of reputation lies in its point of origin: 
Reputation is not only how a man lives his life, but it is also how others endeavor to characterize his 
actions.
1
 Thus, society has developed a system for protecting reputational interests from the harms 
inflicted by others’ characterizations.  The defamation tort attempts to do that by protecting a man from 
the utterance of false factual assertions that would besmirch his reputation within his community.
2
 
In the early days of the tort, ascertaining a man’s community might have been as simple as 
discerning the members of his village or town.  However, as society has become more technologically 
advanced and interconnected, a man’s community may no longer consist only of those who reside within 
shouting distance. As mass communication and rapid transportation have developed, a man’s community 
may instead consist of family in distant lands or business associates linked together by an interagency 
computer network.  Indeed, a man’s community likely includes members with whom he has never had 
face-to-face contact.  This 21st century community, united by the Internet, is a far cry from the framework 
in which the traditional law of libel developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.  Although the 
ability to instantly communicate with a global audience has created legal uncertainties as jurists struggle 
to adapt age-old jurisprudence to modern-day technologies, such innovations also hold much potential to 
promote an environment conducive to free expression that has long been contemplated. 
The concept of community plays an important role in defamation litigation. Courts may use a 
plaintiff’s community to make several determinations critical to the litigation. First, the evaluation of the 
plaintiff’s community may be used to determine whether a statement actually contained a defamatory 
communication.
3
 Second, courts may look to the plaintiff’s community to determine his status as a 


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