8

There has been some discussion on whether or not legal questions should be on-topic for Writers SE. Many legal questions may be on-topic, but where should we draw the line?

A recent question (Can I publish hate mail?) seems to blur the line quite a bit. The question vaguely relates to legal advice about blogging, but it seems to be more of a general web-related question than a question specific to writing or writers.

Any thoughts?

  • I think that the hate mail question is really an intersection of three on-topic question types, none of which is writing: Publishing, blogging, and legal. – Neil Fein Jan 16 '18 at 17:05
  • @NeilFein I definitely see your point, but it seems to me that this question is more of a general question about the legality of revealing personal information, rather than a specific publishing or blogging question. – freginold Jan 16 '18 at 17:12
  • I went by motivation, which is why replied and I flagged it the way I did. While it is not uncommon to be upset/ hurt by hate mail, the question seemed to be about how to get revenge at the sender who slighted them w/o having legal ramifications to worry about. – BugFolk Jan 16 '18 at 17:51
  • 2
    @NeilFein While it could be a topic about writing/ legal advice, the motive certainly wasn't. The motive appears to be "how to get revenge and dox the offender(s) without potential legal ramifications." If done could bring on more serious consequences hence the "can of worms". Also lacking specifics about the nature of the blog or website in question we don't know what is going on, thus can't really reply. Is the blog controversial? Political? Or badmouthing a person/ organization or product? Without knowing those details we could get pulled into something not worth it. – BugFolk Jan 16 '18 at 18:04
  • 1
    In general, SE doesn't allow individual legal advice. Even Law.SE has this as the disclaimer – Andrew T. Jan 28 '18 at 15:12
5

I am not a lawyer. However, I am in business and have known many lawyers (and have had up to three different types of lawyer on speed dial: Business and contract, child custody, and criminal (we were prosecuting a former employee).

Unlike all other topics of advice in writing, it is my understanding of the law that it can be a crime (in the USA) to give legal advice without BEING a lawyer, especially if that advice is relied upon and the result is the commission of an offense (a crime, slander, libel, copyright violation, etc).

To dispel a common mistake committed in a previous answer, the fact that many other people commit an offense is not an excuse for committing the offense. Ask anybody that has ever had to pay a traffic ticket!

Legal advice requires a different standard of care.

  • It should be qualified as being not by a lawyer, and an understanding of the law. It does not make a difference if this should be assumed by readers, or should be obvious. Posts that definitively claim something is protected under the law should be either removed or edited to indicate they are an opinion.

  • Preference should be given to those with links to trustworthy blogs by actual publishers, lawyers, legal websites, universities or state or federal descriptions of actual law in a state.

  • Amateur legal arguments about the intersection of (American) rights of free speech and what counts as libel or slander or sexual harassment or what people should be "allowed" to sue over should be deleted, if no links are provided.

I will point out that the law on lawsuits seems to allow lawsuits for virtually any purpose whatsoever, and in my own business experience being served with a lawsuit starts the clock ticking on very expensive lawyers immediately (and even if covered by insurance, can take days and weeks of time), and it is generally time and money that will never be recovered. An amateur's ignorant assurances that somebody is safe because "it sounds like free speech" to the amateur, or "no jury would convict you", or "that cannot possibly be how the law works" are simply false.

First, some terrible injustices are encoded in the law!

Second, by the time you get to a "jury" or even a judge (in the USA) you might have spent $25,000 on lawyers. Even if no damages were assessed, I think it is doubtful this money can be recovered: Here is an article written by an attorney that discusses frivolous lawsuits; or suing because you were sued. Excerpt:

A weak lawsuit is not necessarily a “frivolous” one. Frivolous lawsuits are typically cases that have no legitimate factual or legal support and are not even based on a good faith argument for the extension or reversal of existing law.

[...snip...] Bring a suit or claim for “abuse of process.” If you believe that a lawsuit was brought against you for an improper purpose,

[...snip...] Sue for “malicious prosecution” after you defeat the frivolous case. After you have successfully defeated a frivolous case that was brought against you, you might have a basis to sue the one who brought that lawsuit under the theory of “malicious prosecution.” To bring a valid case for malicious prosecution, however, usually requires proof that the suit you defeated was brought with malice and had no probable cause.

Again, it is my understanding it is very difficult to prove a person suing you for damages had no legitimate cause to sue you. Their lawyers would most likely have laid out a plausible case within the law to take it to court in the first place!

Personally I think we should flag some answers as Legal Advice Without Disclaimers, or Legal Advice Without Authoritative Reference.

As for the types of legal questions allowed, I agree with posters that a plausible case should be made that the question is directly related to writing and does not apply to life or business in general, and is not a "cheat" of that, e.g. "My character is being sued because his lawnmower threw a stone and struck the neighbor's car, with his neighbor standing there, and the lawsuit says this required $2,528 in repairs, which my character considers ridiculous. What should he do?"

Of course that might be flagged as "asking about what to write", but would be (to me) clearly asking about a legal question, not a writing question. On the other hand, whether or not a blog post constitutes damages IS a writing question about the law, and with appropriate disclaimers and authoritative reference, should be allowed.

  • I agree with you about including a disclaimer with anything that could be construed as possible legal advice. With regard to this question in particular, it seems to me that the question is more about "Can I make public someone's personal information that they've shared with me" rather than a blogging-specific question, but I can see the other side, too. – freginold Jan 23 '18 at 17:04
  • I commented on that question, as a writing question. I disagree with you, you just generalized the question, which by definition makes it broader and more generic than it was originally: It clearly asked about a blog and website of which the poster was the author, and an idea for public shaming for a private conversation, and whether he could be protected with a simple disclaimer. (Not necessarily, such simple disclaimers are not always held to be contracts and the public shaming action described might be considered reckless endangerment or a cause of mental distress.) – Amadeus Jan 23 '18 at 17:43
  • The question is fairly broad on its own; replacing "on my blog or website" with "on Twitter," "on Facebook," or "on [xyz] forum" wouldn't significantly change the question's context. – freginold Jan 24 '18 at 0:59
6

I don't really have an opinion at this time as to whether legal questions should be on topic or off topic, but I do want to add one caveat.

Legal questions, if allowed, absolutely need to somehow specify the relevant jurisdiction.

This site has contributors spread out across the world. The passive readership is probably even more diverse.

A question that doesn't specify the jurisdiction cannot reasonably be answered. A bad question doesn't become a good question just because it specifies a jurisdiction, but specifying a jurisdiction is pretty much a prerequisite for it to be answerable in the first place.

I would actually go so far as to argue that no matter whether legal questions are to be considered to be on topic or off topic, legal questions that don't specify a jurisdiction should be put on hold, likely as "too broad" (because any good answer would have to account for all countries in the world, which just isn't feasible).

Other sites such as The Workplace, Aviation, Personal Finance & Money and probably some other sites in the network largely solve this problem with country tags. I don't think we have a sufficiently large number of legal questions for country tags to work well, at least to begin with, but it should be easy to write something like "answers should apply to the law of Bangalla" in the question text.

  • 1
    Great point; without jurisdiction, any legal question is virtually unanswerable. – freginold Jan 19 '18 at 13:41
5

IMHO, there are legal questions that are very clearly related to writing and that seem highly relevant to me. Questions about copyright law immediately come to mind. Copyright law affects every writer, and it only applies to writing. Ditto laws about libel and slander.

I think the question about posting hate mail is highly relevant. Presumably the issue is whether the web site owner could be sued for libel or something of the sort. That is something very specific to writing. I don't understand how it can be declared irrelevant because it is "about blogging". Blogging is clearly a form of writing. It was my understanding that this forum was about "writing", not "writing novels" or ... or what?

There are some legal questions that are relevant to writing, but that are broader than writing. For example, laws about taxes on income from writing. If the question was clearly specific to writing, like something about what tax form to use to report writing income or how publishers are supposed to report royalties, I'd consider it relevant here. If it was a question about business in general, like, say, a question about how to register a business name with the state, I'd say that's more debatable. It might be convenient to allow writers to ask such questions here, or one could make a case that such questions are more appropriate on a business or law or tax forum.

If a question is about law and has nothing to do with writing, like "Can I legally replace the catalytic converter on my car with a straight pipe?" or some such, then yeah, it doesn't belong on this forum. But I think that's obvious.

In general, I think we should err on the side of tolerance. If it's debatable if a question is appropriate, then let it stand.

  • 1
    I don't disagree that this question could be relevant, but it seems to me to be more about the general legality of revealing someone's personal information, rather than specifically about blogging. The same question could easily be asked about posting hate mail on Twitter, or Facebook, or in a newsgroup. It doesn't seem (to me, at least) to specifically apply to writing or blogging. – freginold Jan 16 '18 at 17:28
3

My take on this: While it could be a topic about writing/ legal advice, the motive certainly wasn't in the question.

The motive appears to be "how to get revenge and dox the offender(s) without potential legal ramifications."

If done could bring on more serious consequences hence the "can of worms". Also lacking specifics about the nature of the blog or website in question we don't know what is going on, thus can't really reply. Is the blog controversial? Political? Or bad mouthing a person/ organization or product? Without knowing those details whoever tries to give a helpful answer could get pulled into something not worth it. Especially if the other party involved happen to come across the question.

I've seen it done so that's why I am cautious of these things.

  • For the sake of argument, does the motive really matter? If the question is truly about the legality of posting someone else's personal, private information on a blog, the blogger's motive wouldn't affect that legality, would it? – freginold Jan 18 '18 at 3:32
  • If it is for defamation then yes it can matter quite a lot. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Defamation – BugFolk Jan 18 '18 at 3:42
  • There can be other reasons people would not want their personal information published online. Off the top of my head I can think of safety concerns, risk of harassment, stalking, swatting (people calling the FBI to ransack the victim's house.) I'd say motive does matter. – BugFolk Jan 18 '18 at 3:47
  • Defamation only applies to false information. The question was about the legality of posting private information (contents of an email; name and address). – freginold Jan 18 '18 at 11:09
  • I agree that there's many reasons someone wouldn't want their personal information posted, but that doesn't affect the blogger's legal standing in posting it. Those reasons would impact whether a reader/commenter decided to send the hate mail (assuming the OP included a disclaimer as he suggested he might) but they wouldn't affect whether it was legal or not for the blogger to publish the hate mail. – freginold Jan 18 '18 at 11:11
  • It also matters is it just the message and the email sent or are they publishing home address, home phone number, place of employment as well? Are they publishing the message/ contact info with a message on top of saying slander about the person sending the undesirable email? That also makes a difference. The first I am not sure, may be legal, but not ethical. (again what does the author view as "hate"? Could it be a differing political opinion?) The second I believe would fall into legal issue territory, especially if slander and place of employment get involved. – BugFolk Jan 18 '18 at 14:37
  • It's definitely a murky situation. But it seems a lot of these questions revolve around the morality of publishing the hate mail, rather than the legality of it. Whether the OP should or shouldn't do it ethically isn't the same as whether they legally can or can't. Also, I don't think it falls under slander if everything he or she plans to publish is information provided by the commenter or emailer. – freginold Jan 18 '18 at 14:42
1

In the general way that we can answer them*, all legal questions on this site have been answered many times on the web. Therefore, any legal question that does not show initial research, should be closed. (As a result, there would be no more legal questions.)

  • 2
    Going by that criterion, many questions on this site should be closed. Some current questions that have been answered many times online: "Where do I go looking for an editor?" and "Inside your character's head - when does it become too much?" – freginold Jan 23 '18 at 0:56
  • 1
    @freginold You overlooked the first criterion: "in the general way that we can answer them". No member of this site that I know of is a lawyer. So answers to law-related questions must necessarily be amateurish and questionable. But we are all writers. So answers to writing-related questions can be and usually are both specific and valid. Because of that criterion, the suggestion only applies to legal question. – Son of a Son Jan 23 '18 at 9:10
  • @SonofaSon That's a good point, thanks. But to say that a question should be closed because it has already been answered other places online would result in many of the questions on Writers SE being closed. – freginold Jan 23 '18 at 11:34
  • @freginold Again you misstate the suggestion. The suggestion is to close questions that have been answered both often and widely elsewhere on the web as well as falling outside the expertise of this community. You ignore both the lack of expertise and the widespread availability of answers and focus solely on "elsewhere". – Son of a Son Jan 23 '18 at 12:00
  • 2
    "Does not show research effort" is not a reason to vote to close. It is, however, one of the three canonical reasons to downvote a question. – a CVn Jan 23 '18 at 16:06
1

My choice would be to make all legal questions off topic for the simple reason that if "you are not a lawyer" why would I trust your advice anyway? Law is such a complex (and regionally variable) matter and no two court cases are ever alike enough to predict the outcome of one from the other, that any advice by anyone who is not a legal expert (in the relevant field of law) is most likely not only usless but in fact

harmful

But given that the community appears to be opposed to defining legal questions as off topic, I suggest the following:


Questions about writing

The overwhelming majority of the legal questions on this site come down to two variants:

  1. Can I use {something real} in my writing?

    where {something real} = {a real place, a real person, a real event, ...}

  2. Can I use {something from another publication} in my writing?

    where {something from another publication} = {characters from a movie, setting from a book, story idea from someone else's manuscript, ...}

All these questions can be answered with

  1. Yes, if you do not disparage, vilify, slur, denigrate, libel, sully, defame etc. the {something real}.

  2. No, unless you have written permission.

These two questions have been answered so many times on this site that any further variations should therefore be closed as duplicates. This would greatly diminish the number of new legal questions.


Questions about publishing

Some few legal questions deal with contracts between authors and publishers or agents. These are both relevant and fall within the possible experience of the community and could be allowed.


Whatever you decide, legal questions are the one area where I will certainly never trust the hive mind.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .