June 11, 2014 — Dr. Jack Ellis, Morehead’s senior resident historian and a dear friend, sent me a copy of a clipping from the Jan. 24, 1935, issue of the Rowan County News, now called The Morehead News.
“Woman fined in county court for gossiping” is the headline.
It recounts a trial in county court in which an 18-year-old woman was found guilty of gossiping, defined by that court as circulating false and slanderous reports.
The defendant was fined $10 and ordered to pay court costs.
The presiding judge noted that the penalty could have been a fine of as much as $100 or up to 60 days in jail or both.
Dr. Ellis, who wrote a weekly historical newspaper column for many years, asked if that law is still on the books.
I couldn’t find a criminal statute on slander, the uttering of defamatory statements in person, but I know that one can be sued for doing so, just like print and broadcast news media organizations can be sued for publishing or broadcasting false information.
I chuckled at the thought of some local gossip being hauled into court for saying naughty things across the fence about her neighbors.
But then I realized what might have been seen in the past as relatively harmless gossip today has become full-blown character assassination.
The advent of online chat rooms has enabled nameless, faceless persons to literally write anything about anyone, almost without being held accountable.
In fact, this flagrant misuse of technology represents a frontal assault on the privacy rights of each of us. It is a perfect tool for “cyber-bullying” and other vicious tactics.
Freedom of expression always will be a cherished right in our country.
But it doesn’t allow us to arbitrarily yell “fire” in a crowded place or besmirch the good name of another person without being held to account.