Defaming the Dead

JONATHAN TURLEY

September 17, 2006 Sunday

Elvis Presley was a pedophile. Queen Victoria, a lesbian. Abraham Lincoln, a gay adulterer. Winston Churchill, a murderous conspirator.

These are all “facts” published in recent years about famous people, and in each case such claims would normally bring charges of libel per se — a legal term signifying defamation so serious that damages are presumed. However, these statements also share one other important element: They were all published after the subjects had died. As a result, the publishers are protected by the longstanding rule that you cannot defame the dead (which, in practical terms, means you can). Once Elvis has left the living, you can say anything you want about him. No matter how malicious, untrue or vile.

Indeed, while most people are raised not to speak ill of the dead, the law fully supports those who do. Under the common-law rules governing defamation, a…

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