Defamation and the Deceased
Is it possible to defame someone who is no longer with the living? Can you, for example, take an historical figure, such as Winston Churchill, and write untrue things about him without fearing the arrival of a lawyer’s letter or phone-call?
In Australia, you can. Technically, it is not possible to defame a dead person…an example of this would be the movie ‘Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’…an American movie, I know, but let’s use it as an example and pretend, just for a moment, that it was made in Australia, my home country.
You can not defame Abraham Lincoln as such, because his history is already widely-known, and we all know he never had anything to do with the ‘creatures of the night’.
Where you need to be careful is in making a statement that carries over to have an affect on his living descendants…say, if you stated that he hunted vampires, ‘and this was to have ramifications on his descendants for generations to come’. In such an instance, it is possible you have defamed his descendants, and they would enjoy nothing more than suing you over the matter. But if the deed of which you falsely accused him was applied strictly to the deceased person, whoever he or she may be, under Australian law, you should be safe.
You may find this also applies in your own country, but just to be certain, I’d contact a lawyer and ask him…or her. And don’t forget, we all have a secondary source of advice as regards the defamation laws relevant in your country: the average journalist studies Journalism Law as part of their course to become a member of the fourth estate, which means specifically the laws surrounding defamation, libel, and slander. An experienced journalist can give you a good guide as to whether what you are about to write may or may not get you into hot water…someone who has been practicing their trade for ten years or more, or perhaps even the Chief of Staff of a large newspaper. If they’re in any doubt, they will advise you to ask a lawyer.