The Right to Reputation Versus Freedom of Expression

Case Dreyfus. Picture by Henri Meyer on the cover of Petit Journal of 23 december 1895.
Case Dreyfus. Petit Journal, 23 december 1895.

Everyone has a right to his or her own good name and reputation. This is true because all human beings possess innate dignity that goes beyond our personal histories of success and failure, and our ethical or unethical actions.

But why is it so difficult to put this fundamental principle of social coexistence into practice, even when it seems to be very clear on a theoretical level? Every time a public figure is singled out for some allegedly unethical behaviour it is in all the headlines and attracts everyone’s attention. Sadly, we see this happening every day. Does freedom of expression justify the violation of people’s right to their own good name?

There are three ethically reprehensible actions that damage the right to reputation: gossip, defamation and slander.

  • Gossip consists of speaking ill of someone who is not present about matters that both the speaker and the listener are aware of and need not mention. It’s that all-too-common experience of being at a gathering where you don’t want to be the first to leave because you know that, as soon as you do, everyone else will start talking about you. And you can be sure they won’t be saying good things.
  • Defamation consists of speaking ill of someone who is not present. However, in this case, the listeners are not aware of the bad things and there is no need to inform them, even if these things are true.
  • Slander adds yet another level of seriousness, as it consists of telling falsehoods about someone who is not present in order to cause harm. How many times are news items published that are later shown to be false or biased? The scandal is usually splashed all over the front page, but the correction, if it is ever run, appears in some obscure place. The result is a destroyed reputation.

Even thieves have a right to their own good name,
without going to the extreme of being naive.

British tabloids, by Bobbie Johnson
British tabloids, by Bobbie Johnson

The right to reputation protects this important personal condition and there must be very serious reasons to violate it. At times there is no way to avoid it, such as when it is in the public interest and sufficient evidence is available. In this case, a specific unethical act can be made public and consequently damage the honor of the person who did it. But this should not be the default approach. Ultimately, the principle that “even thieves have a right to their own good name” should prevail over the principle that “if you throw enough mud, some of it will stick.”

This attitude is still compatible with setting up measures to ensure that unethical acts are not committed and that those who commit wrongdoings pay for them. Let’s look at the problem from the opposite perspective. The fact that someone has committed an unethical act does not give anyone the right to discredit that person for the rest of his/her life, regardless of whether he/she is a public figure or an ordinary citizen. Finding a balance between these two stances requires an uncommon degree of rectitude and ethical sophistication.

Three principles for respecting the right to someone’s good name

There are three criteria that can help you respect people’s reputations. They can be applied to anyone, including families, business and politicians:

  1. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. There’s a very practical way to determine this: “If the person in question heard or read what you are saying about him/her, would he/she feel comfortable?” We have all experienced unfortunate emails that wind up in the inbox of the people they mention.
  2. When you have to judge someone, try to be fair. Sometimes you have no other choice but to make a judgment about someone’s behavior and to share that judgment with others. When you make a list of negative things, you should also have the tact to make a list of positive things .
  3. The ability to forgive or forget. Remember that nobody is perfect and that we can all make mistakes. Forgetting is not as noble as forgiving, but can be just as effective . Some things are better off forgotten. It makes no sense to focus on a list of wrongdoings or continue harping on someone for the same things. We all have the right to start over again and not carry the weight of the past on our shoulders . Moreover, new technologies allow things that happened in the past to be perpetually available on line in a format that is infinitely more accessible than old newspaper archives, thus doing away with the so-called right to be forgotten.

You might think that respect for people’s good name makes society “less fun,” but it certainly contributes to creating a more respectful environment.