Issues to Consider When Writing, Speaking, or Creating Videos

The information provided here does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice; instead, all information, content, and materials provided here are for general informational purposes only. The information provided below may not constitute the most up-to-date legal or other information. The links to third-party websites are only for the convenience of the reader, user, or browser. ICSA and its directors, officers, staff, and members do not recommend or endorse the contents of the third-party sites. If you have questions about any particular legal matter, you should contact your attorney. Only your individual attorney can provide assurances that the information contained here – and your interpretation of it – is applicable or appropriate to your particular situation. All liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on the information provided here is hereby expressly disclaimed. The content on this posting is provided "as is;" no representations are made that the content is error-free.

The following suggestions are ideas that those concerned about socio-psychological abuse in groups and other situations may want to consider when they write, speak, or create videos. The bullet points are simply ideas or resources to consider. Each situation should be analyzed individually.

Responsible Writing: General Principles

  • Personal experience. When discussing any group, it may be prudent to stick to your personal experience and to be wary of overgeneralizing from your experience to the experience of all members of a group. It may also be advisable to disguise names, including the group name.

  • Basics. Be civil, stick to facts, avoid attacks on persons, define your terms, and use ambiguous terms, such as “cult,” judiciously.

  • Give preference to authoritative sources. When referring to organizations, court cases, or events, cite, when available, legal opinions, books, or published articles. If writing about abuse and you find court cases, cite and quote from the cases. Quoting testimony from cases is helpful, in part because testimony is given under oath. If an abuse victim who has published a book makes allegations in public, citing and quoting from the book is usually preferable, prefacing the person’s statements with qualifiers such as “according to X.”

  • Avoid making grand generalizations about a group or person(s) based on anecdotal data, hearsay, or scientific data that is not representative of the group’s population. Data based on people in counseling, for example, is not representative of a group, for that is a self-selected, biased sample of people in distress.

Legal Issues

  • Costs of lawsuits. Defending against a lawsuit can cost tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars in legal fees. Pro bono legal assistance is sometimes available, but one should not count on such help.

  • Opinion vs. Fact. Understand the distinction between facts and opinion. Opinions usually are granted more latitude vis a vis legal liability. Merely adding “in my opinion” to a statement of fact, however, does not ensure immunity against attack. See https://www.dmlp.org/legal-guide/opinion-and-fair-comment-privileges.

  • Defamation (slander/libel). Avoid labels that may be slanderous or libelous. For example, you may have inside information indicating that a guru is a child molester, but if he has not been convicted of such in a court of law, he is not a child molester in a factual sense and could sue for libel if he were called a child molester. Prevailing in court can be difficult if victims are unwilling to testify or group members are willing to give distorted or false testimony about concrete events. Familiarize yourself with the legal concepts of defamation (libel in print, slander in speech), the criteria for which can vary among countries and between U.S. states. A useful U.S. resource is the First Amendment Handbook, produced by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. FindLaw has a libel/slander information sheet and a directory of defamation lawyers. The Media Law Resource Center also has useful resources.

  • Speaking. If you speak in public (e.g., a conference), you may be accused of slander. Because speech is often extemporaneous, one may not be as careful as one might be in writing. Develop habits of responsible speech to avoid off-the-cuff carelessness.

  • Quoting other persons. If you quote someone else’s defamatory statement, you are liable for defamation with some exceptions. For instance, in some states there is a “neutral reporting privilege” for journalists quoting defamatory accusations which are newsworthy.

  • Anti-Slapp Laws. Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPP) intimidate and silence critics through expensive, baseless legal proceedings. In some states anti-SLAPP laws “are intended to prevent people from using courts, and potential threats of a lawsuit, to intimidate people who are exercising their First Amendment rights.” (Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press)

  • Self-Publishing Risks. Major publishers will often legally vet books. Many abuse victims, however, self-publish their memoirs, which may entail risk. Hiring a lawyer to vet a manuscript can be expensive. Resources for self-publishers include: Sidebar Saturdays, “a group of attorneys with a wide range of legal experience who write thrillers, mysteries, and works of non-fiction.” See their Pre-Publication Review of Manuscripts – Six Things to Consider. They also publish The Legal Writer’s GPS: A guide for navigating the legal landscape of publishing. Bowker provides resources for self-publishing, marketing, and procedures for obtaining ISBNs and barcodes.

  • Copyright and the Fair Use Doctrine. The U.S. Copyright Office has a May 2021 update on the Fair Use doctrine, which addresses the question of copyright infringement when quoting sources. The creation of Internet videos is a growing phenomenon. See YouTube’s Frequently asked copyright questions and The Center for Media & Social Impact’s Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video.

  • Law and the Internet. The application of legal principles to the Internet is an evolving area. The Electronic Frontier Foundation is a useful resource. EFF also provides guidance on appealing the suspension of online content.

  • Anonymous Blogging. The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) provides resources for those who wish to blog anonymously. They published a White Paper in 2005. A site search on “blog anonymously” provides many resources, including some that were recently posted. There are technical challenges to achieving true anonymity on the Web, so research this area thoroughly if you want to blog anonymously to decrease risk.

  • Online forums, chat groups, etc. The Communications Decency Act, 47 USC §230, protects interactive computer service providers. See https://www.dmlp.org/legal-guide/publishing-statements-and-content-others. However, such protection does not immunize against frivolous lawsuits, which may be expensive to defend against.