Can the Dead Be Defamed?
I don’t receive these calls very often, but they are heart wrenching when I do. I have received multiple calls over the years arising from television portrayals of deceased people. They typically arise from those “true detective” shows. An unsolved case is discussed, and the family of the prime suspect elects to point the finger at someone close to the case who has since died. A dead person is the perfect scapegoat, because he can’t defend himself.
As you can imagine, having the loving memory of a former, spouse, sibling and/or parent sullied by a false accusation of murder does not sit well with those involved. Their love-one is being defamed, and they call wanting to sue for defamation.
But consider the very basis of defamation. The damage that defamation causes is the loss of reputation AND the emotional distress that flows therefrom. We’ve all been taught not to speak ill of the dead, and no doubt it causes tremendous heartache for the family of the deceased when lies are told about him, but he isn’t here to suffer. This is why the law provides that you can’t defame the dead.
When I present this bad news to callers, inevitably it is followed up with the classic quantum of harm argument. Potential clients always look first to the harm that is being caused, and assume there must be a remedy.
“But these claims are destroying my life because now everyone thinks my deceased husband was a murderer. There must be something we can do.”
I understand this logic, and indeed it is seemingly embraced by the most fundamental of all legal maxims, “equity will not suffer a wrong to be without a remedy.”
The problem is the definition of “wrong”. If the law says that you can’t defame the dead, then the fact that you speak poorly of the dead does not make your speech defamatory, and you have thus committed no “wrong” in a legal sense. Thus, the fact that you are doing something that causes emotional distress to others does not mean that there is a basis for a legal action. Some vegans are no doubt very upset that there is so much meat being eaten around them, but they can’t sue because meat-eating is not a legal wrong. The harm suffered does not necessarily determine whether a wrong was committed.
Go here for a very interesting discussion of defaming the dead, with many historical examples.