The Oscar Pistorius case has enthralled South Africans who are torn between supporting their hero and their disappointment at seemingly being let down by a South African icon. The discussion has practically overwhelmed my Twitter stream and people have expressed opinions on Pistorius’ guilt and innocence well before a court has reached any conclusions of its own.
#OscarPistorius Today’s lesson: Don’t rush to conclusions. Wait for both sides. Examine everything.
— Alex Eliseev (@alexeliseev) February 20, 2013
While our Bill of rights gives us the right to express our opinions, our rights are not absolute and, in the context of defamation, the defamed person’s right to dignity often holds sway unless there are clear public policy reasons to allow the comments to stand. In this tragic case, Pistorius stands accused of murder but he hasn’t been found guilty. He is still, in our law at least, innocent. We don’t handle criminal law and leave the analysis of the criminal legal issues to the likes of David Dadic who is doing a far better job explaining some of the legal technicalities. That said, drawing conclusions about Pistorius’ guilt and publishing those conclusions online can lead to a defamation claim down the line.
In all likelihood, most of the conjecture about Pistorius’ guilt is defamatory and the question is whether those defamatory statements are justifiable and that remains to be seen. If you are engaged in a debate about the case, it may be prudent for you to be measured in your statements and avoid potentially prejudicial declarations. As William Booth, a criminal law attorney commented today for East Coast Radio –
“I can understand there [are] people that are expressing horror at what happened, there are also people who are supporting Mr. Pistorius and saying he should be released on bail,” he said.
“So everything, I feel, should be said and done in a proper and objective manner, and not that one gets carried away and say things that you may actually regret later.
“Too much has been said that has no factual basis.”