The NiemanJournalismLab blog is reporting that a federal appeals court in Boston has handed down a decision that has disturbed many, declaring that truth published with “actual malice” can be considered libel. The case in question is a libel lawsuit filed against Staples by a former employee after the office supply giant sent a mass email announcing the employee was being fired for padding his expense report and for ethics issues. While the employee, a sales director, admitted to the charges, he still contends the email was libelous as it was sent out specifically to hurt his reputation. Here’s an excerpt:
Staples never previously disclosed the name of a fired employee in communications with employees; it sent no memos about other employees fired for expense policy violations; and most of the 1500 recipients did not travel for the company and did not need to be reminded of the travel expense policy.
With this decision, the First Amendment has been replaced by the maxim, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it.” Consider the irony: The Supreme Court has said that there is constitutional protection for false statements on matters of public concern, but now the First Circuit says there is no constitutional protection for true statements on matters of private concern. What’s worse, the court offers no guidance about how to distinguish what is of “public concern” from what is of “private concern”.
This case is a stark reminder to be very very careful what you say in an email because your words can and will reflect on your company and could land you in some boiling water!