Slut or Not a Slut, that is the Question

Is calling someone a “slut” defamatory?

I have said in the past that the answer is no, because it is the sort of word that is so imprecise in its definition, that it is simply impossible to show that it is verifiably false. The speaker might think that anyone who engages in pre-marital sex is a slut, or that a woman who wears a skirt less than two inches above her knee is a slut, or whatever.

So a case out of Australia caught my eye, because they are actually trying to create some litmus test to determine what would make one a slut. The case involves one Emma Husar, who is a Federal MP. She is suing BuzzFeed Australia, because it reported that she’s a “slut who boasts about who she has had sex with.”

Here’s where it gets fun.

BuzzFeed is asserting a truth defense, arguing that it can show that Husar flashed a fellow MP, Sharon Stone style, had a relationship with another MP, and engaged in sexualized conduct toward her physiotherapist. In BuzzFeed’s estimation, that makes Husar a slut.

Counsel for Husar, however, is seeking to strike the truth defense, claiming that even if BuzzFeed can prove the listed activities, that would not make Husar a slut.

This is why I love the law.

[Update 1-19-22:] I happened across this article, and was curious as to the outcome of Husar’s suit against BuzzFeed Australia. Discussing the case, Husar said:

“I am not a bully, I am not Sharon Stone, I am not a thief and I did not deliberately misuse my work expenses.”

The judge ruled that BuzzFeed could not use the truth defense. Not because it was not available as a defense (or defence as they spell it in Australia), but because BuzzFeed could not show that she had flashed a fellow MP or that she had every sexually harassed anyone. Following the ruling by the court, BuzzFeed wisely reached an out-of-court settlement with Hussar. The terms of the settlement were confidential, but they apparently included removal of the article and an apology for publishing it, since those acts immediately occurred. BuzzFeed did not admit liability.

BuzzFeed later announced that it would be closing its operations in Australia and the UK in order to “focus on ‘news that hits big’ in the US.”

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Aaron Morris
Morris & Stone, LLP
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