Should Governments Sue for Defamation?
I just read in the Moscow Times, a local English daily, that the Orange County, California, Water District Board is suing someone for defamation. This someone, whoever he is, a private citizen, has sent emails claiming corruption at the Board in allocating Water rights, or something like that.
The article goes on to say that lawyers who apparently specialize in this field of the law, claim that the Board cannot win this case. As a matter of fact, the Board should not have even sued because according to the law government cannot sue citizens for defamation.
The reason such a law exists, the article claims, is that if the deep pocketed government can sue whistle blowers, who by definition, do not have the same resources to defend themselves; it will discourage anyone from criticizing the government, and corruption will flourish. The government will suppress opposition and hold on to power even though they do not deserve it.
Why was this article published in Russia? Because a law is being passed through their parliament that will levy prohibitively heavy fines (almost a year of average take home income) on any demonstrator that demonstrates without a permit.
I believe this article was a subtle way to criticize the Russian government for suppression.
Makes sense, right?
Not to me.
It has become a fashion to bad mouth government and politicians. It is not just in fiction, in movies, in books and fictional stories which depict politicians as corrupt
to the core.
It is in editorials. It is in letters to the editors. It is everywhere.
Some accusations might be true. Some might be bad analysis of a situation with bad attribution of causality. And some are pure fiction, serving someone’s interests to undermine the power of those in power.
But, the end result is that these accusations feed a frenzy of politicians hate. And, not only art imitates life, life imitates art too.
As the attacks intensify, they have an accumulative effect that impacts the degree of trust followers have in their leaders, and people will reject their leaders even when the reasons for it are questionable.
To me, management of a company, parenting of a family or governing of a country, have a common denominator: they have a role to provide the healthy envelope within which we strive to succeed in life.
To be able to perform that task, parents need to be trusted. The same applies to management of companies and not less true, for politicians. They all perform a role of leadership, and leadership does not perform well without trust of followers.
Would you allow your children to bad mouth the mother of the family, for instance? Or, as a manager, will you pass over, without reaction, being defamed by a subordinate?
Why are government politicians different?
The argument given above that if the government sues, the government with its vast financial resources, with brigades of lawyers on its payroll, will squash, bulldoze its citizens into submission, and no one will dare to criticize the politician or the government and corruption will have a free run.
Wrong conclusion, I say.
The solution is not to forbid the government from suing.
The solution is to legislate that whistle blowers will have the right to protection to be paid by the government.
I remember the first time that I came across this question of how politicians get defamed.
The Adizes International Convention that we hold annually and this year was our thirty third one, was at that time in Eilat, a resort port city on the shores of the Red Sea, Israel. At the head table sitting next to me was the mayor of the city.
He asked me about what was Adizes. I started to tell him about mutual trust and respect, which is what we bring to companies to minimize internal conflicts that are destructive and create a culture of constructive, collaborative relations.
As I was talking, I became aware that his face was showing disbelief, and by curling his lips, he was communicating to me: “Come on, be real. Are you naïve or what? Grow up!!”
So, I asked him what he thinks about what I just told him.
“It will not work in politics, in government,” he said.
“When my opponent goes all over town telling everyone that my sister is a whore, how easy is it for me to tell the people that I do not even have a sister?”
“Bad news travel fast, easy. Spread like fire. Good news move at the speed of mud.”
“There is no mutual trust and respect in politics?”
I was numb; but over the years, I realized that he was right. Working with eight prime ministers from eight different countries, I noticed how thick skin they have to be to lead a country. I noticed that anyone that is even a bit sensitive will not run for office if his life depends on it. He or she is putting his/her reputation on line, endangering their family relations and subjecting themselves to continuous humiliation.
Politics is the dirtiest war there is. Politicians to win power throw not mud but fecal matter at each other all day long. They lie about each other. Spin information, twist the truth and the result is that the populations does not trust ANY of them.
The country becomes functionally leaderless. It is like parents that bad mouth each other and in front of their children, and not just by calling each other bad names, but by accusing each other of atrocious things although they never happened. And what do children of such parents do in such situations? They run away from home, become homeless, become drug addicts and child prostitutes…
What do citizenship of countries where all trust of politicians has evaporated, do? They leave the country if they can, and if they can not, they burn tires, smash windows, battle the police and feel hopeless or join the corruption wagon if they can.
We must protect the good name of our leaders and those that govern us without giving them the right to suppress us.
Government should be able to use taxpayers money to sue taxpayers, and the same source of money should be available to taxpayers to defend themselves from the government.
We should allow governments to sue. And government should finance the defense of whoever accuses the government.
Whoever loses; however, pays the damages.
We should dry the swamp that is breeding lethal mosquitoes that chase good people from choosing to become our leaders.
Dr. Ichak Kalderon Adizes