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Legal Speak

Brother, Can You Spare a Click?

Published September 23, 2008 11:40 AM by Tony DeWitt

There is a fabulous folktale about the gossip who, seeking atonement, goes to the village religious leader and begs to be forgiven for spreading gossip. The religious leader tells him to go home, open a pillow, and scatter the feathers to the wind, and return the next day. The gossip does so, and returns seeking forgiveness. The religious teacher tells him to go pick up all the feathers and he'll be forgiven. The gestalt of the story is that a story once repeated takes on a new life, and it is not possible to get the message to all who've heard it that the message was wrong.

Political candidates and parties have figured this out. That's why they often repeat things that are frequently untrue. Too many people believe what they want to believe, and are sure that if the story ran on the news, it must be true. Telling lies about people causes them injury, and it is for this purpose the law of libel and slander exist. Libel is a written false statement that injures a person's reputation; slander is a spoken false statement.

If you went through my email box and did a random sample of my correspondents you would find emails from a variety of individuals all of whom would tell you, if you asked them, that they were decent, upright, God-fearing people who don't gossip and who would never spread a lie or a false statement about others. And yet, if you looked through my email archives, you'd find at one time or another that at least a dozen of them have sent me one or more of the top ten urban myths or legends as a true story.

In recent months you may have seen the following stories circulate on email:

  • A lawyer bought expensive cigars, insured them, smoked them and collected the insurance money only to be charged with arson.
  • Barack Obama was sworn into office on the Quran.
  • Starbucks slighted the troops in Iraq.
  • Barack Obama has been endorsed for President by the Ku Klux Klan.
  • Sarah Palin banned books from the Wasilla, Alaska, public library.
  • Microsoft will send you $1,000 if you forward enough emails.
  • Sarah Palin posed for a photo holding a rifle wearing a flag bikini.
  • Bill Cosby is a write-in candidate for president.
  • The new dollar coins were designed to omit the phrase "in God we Trust."

Every one of those stories is false. Each has been carefully debunked by the folks at Snopes. In spite of this, people get these in their email, and without thinking, they forward them on to the next 30 people on their email list. They don't intend to spread those feathers in the wind, and they don't intend to injure companies like Starbucks or Target, but they do. Companies like these are not brick buildings; they a organizations with people who depend on them for jobs.

The folks at Snopes are constantly updating their database with facts about these kind of stories. They can tell you that AOL and Microsoft are not going to send you $1,000 for forwarding an email to every human being on the planet. They can tell you that criminals are not really using burundanga-soaked business cards to knock out victims. In the event you didn't know it, burundanga is an extract of the datura plant that contains certain organic compounds that might have an effect on the nervous system. 

Just like you should never be suckered by a story of an investment that sounds too good to be true (like a 50% return in two months), you shouldn't believe something just because it came to you in an email. And if the email contains the words "I checked this out and it's for real," that is almost always a tip off that the story is false.

So, the next time someone sends you an email with an outrageous claim about a presidential candidate or that forwarding an email will send you children to college for free, take a moment, go to, and save yourself the hassle of forwarding the message. Instead, reply to the sender and include the link to the snopes site. You'd be surprised how much less stupid email you get. Join with me. Together we can stop stupid emails.



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About this Blog

    A.L. "Tony" DeWitt, RRT, CRT, JD, FAARC
    Occupation: Attorney
    Setting: Jefferson City, Mo.
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