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Defamation


I know a couple who have been operating the same restaurant for about sixty years.
 
Whenever I’m in that neighborhood, I try to stop there, because I have nostalgia for the place, and because I am partial to one of the specialties.
 
This restaurant and this couple are frequently the topics of conversation in a Facebook page I frequent; there is a perennial debate over whether the food now is as good as it was twenty or thirty or forty years ago.
 
There is also a debate about the couple themselves in which some writers speak well of them, and others criticize every aspect of their personalities.
 
Restaurant owners by now are accustomed to “consumer reviews” appearing on line, whether in Yelp or in some other forum.
 
Many of us probably have had the experience of reading a scathing review of a restaurant at which we recently had a wonderful meal—or vice-versa.
 
It’s part of the give-and-take that is inherent in an open society.
 
If you go into a business in which you directly serve the public, you’ll get your kudos and you’ll take your lumps.
 
But in the particular dialogue I’m referring to here, some of the writers have gone to extremes in lambasting not only the restaurant, not only the manner in which it is managed, but the couple themselves.
 
This is true to the extent that I am sure, having spent more than fifty years in publishing, that many of these remarks are actionable.
 
Facebook and other forums of that kind are relatively new phenomena on the legal landscape, but courts in many jurisdictions have already found that there is no reasonable expectation of privacy for someone expressing opinions in those media.
 
This probably is unlikely to happen, but if the couple I’m referring to were to read what some folks have written about them—remarks that could cause people to avoid them and their restaurant—then that couple might have cause for legal action.
 
But this kind of chatter is of concern for reasons more profound than the possibility of litigation.
 
This tendency to use vile images and language to attack other human beings—because of some misguided sense of impunity—contributes to a corrosion of civility that we now see and hear every day.
 
Even normally sober news agencies have had to—or, at least, have chosen to—lower the standard that governs what they will print or broadcast, because this same libertine attitude has become a part of everyday life.
 
And while it’s a degrading phenomenon in itself, it increasingly prevents calm discussion of issues that involve the common good.
 
Maybe a person gains some catharsis or maybe he feels more potent if he lets fly with the most scurrilous things he can call up from his spleen.
 
But if, at the same time, he professes to be a Christian, he must confront the fact that Jesus, who never referred to many behaviors that we can nonetheless assume he would condemn, did think verbal abuse of each other was important enough to single out.
 

“Whoever shall say to his brother, raca, shall be in danger of the council; but whoever shall say, Thou fool, shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matthew 5:22).

 
This post was initially published in The Catholic Spirit, the newspaper of the Diocese of Metuchen. Charles Paolino is a permanent deacon of that diocese.

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