Hungary, two men are involved in a trial . One is a renowned American-Israeli
Nazi hunter who has spent the past three decades tracking down war
criminals. The other is a former Hungarian soldier who escaped charges
of mass murder by fleeing to South America after World War II.
The Nazi hunter is the one being tried.
Dr. Efraim Zuroff, director of the Simon Wiesenthal
Center’s office in Jerusalem, was sued for defamation  after he
exposed Dr. Sandor Kepiro’s role in organizing the murders of more
than 1,250 Jewish, Serbian and Roma individuals in the city of Novi
Sad. On January 23, 1942, a group of Hungarian officers, acting on
their own initiative, forced thousands of people to the banks of
the Danube River and began to shoot them. The killings ended when
officials from Budapest arrived to restore order.
In 1944 Kepiro was convicted of helping to organize
the killings, although that conviction was reversed by the Nazis
after they invaded Hungary. Kepiro left the country after the war
and remained in hiding until, in the summer of 2006, Zuroff found
him living in Budapest and notified the authorities. Zuroff later
wrote about discovering Kepiro in his book Operation Last Chance:
One Man’s Quest to Bring Nazi Criminals to Justice (Palgrave/Macmillan,
2009). Kepiro sued.
I suspect that the case against Zuroff will ultimately
fail. But the fact that he is on trial at all emphasizes how differently
cases of defamation are treated in other parts of the world. I have
already written here about the limitations on freedom of speech in
Italy, Britain  and Singapore . While other countries skew
toward protecting privacy, personal reputations and state secrets,
the United States allows a much greater degree of open exchange,
giving us more opportunities to speak and learn the truth.
In the United States, a comment is only defamatory
if it is 1) false; 2) not an obvious statement of opinion rather
than of fact; and 3) of a nature that would expose the subject to
hatred, ridicule or ostracism in the eyes of the audience. Here,
Zuroff could not be charged with libel or slander if he could prove
the charges against Kepiro, which the 1944 court already did. In
many other countries, prominently including Singapore  (where
newspapers occasionally decline to report on court proceedings),
a statement can be considered defamatory even if it is substantially
true or a matter of opinion.
The United States also has special protections allowing
a greater degree of freedom in the discussion of public figures.
In the 1964 case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court
determined that to be guilty of defaming a public official (expanded
in later cases to anyone who is a “public figure”), the offender
must act with “actual malice.” This “actual malice” is considered
to exist when the person making the statement knows it to be false
or acts with reckless disregard of whether it is true. In other countries,
the lack of special standards for the discussion of public figures
often leads to silencing political debate and dissent. In South Korea,
for example, the presidential office filed a libel suit  in 2007
against now-President Lee Myung-bak when, as a candidate, he accused
the government of trying to politicize the national security and
tax branches of the civil service.
In the United States, we also have laws addressing
the special circumstances of legal cases and political activity.
An accurate report of a court proceeding or a document publicly filed
in court is immune from libel action, even if the allegations made
in court are false. This allows journalists to report on civil lawsuits
and criminal indictments without first having to investigate the
factual foundation of the complaints. It also allows lawyers to aggressively
present their cases. A defense lawyer can call a prosecution witness
a “pathological liar” in court without risking being sued for slander,
as he might if he made the same comment outside the courthouse.
Police officers have immunity for statements they
make in the course of performing their duties, which allows them
to file routine reports without fear of lawsuits. Members of Congress,
too, can say anything at all when they’re at work on the floor of
the Legislature, without any possibility of legal action being brought.
The United States also has well-crafted laws to deal
with the actions of intermediary parties. While publishers who review
content are responsible for what they publish, carriers that simply
transmit information without reviewing it cannot be held responsible.
If I make a defamatory statement over the phone, I can be sued for
slander, but the telephone company that carries my phone call cannot.
Internet sites receive similar protection when they host user-generated
content as long as they are responsive to complaints and are quick
to remove offending material.
An Italian court, on the other hand, decided last
April to hold several Google executives accountable for content that
was posted on Google-owned YouTube  without their knowledge. In
the United Kingdom, a parenting website was forced to pay damages
 for defamation based on comments that appeared on the website’s
Our laws on defamation mean that, in the United States,
we can have the sort of free, unfettered public exchange that is
not possible in other parts of the world. Newspapers and websites
here do not have to self-censor out of fear of lawsuits. Individuals
with knowledge of others’ criminal or otherwise reprehensible behavior
can inform the public, secure in the knowledge that, if they speak
truthfully, they will be safe from legal repercussions.
Our rights to free speech are so deeply ingrained
in our national consciousness that we often take them for granted.
We shouldn’t. Cases like Zuroff’s remind us of that.