Defamation liability with certain fictional characters

If I write about a fictional ISIS terrorist who was born into the Saudi royal family, is that legally defamatory to the Saudi royal family?
If that fictional terrorist was educated at Oxford University, is that legally defamatory to Oxford University?
If that fictional terrorist became an employee at [existing real-life high-tech company], is that legally defamatory to [existing real-life high-tech company]?

(Assuming that none of these entities are depicted as supporting or condoning terrorism.)

IANAL, so I don’t know the answers. But I’ve seen plenty of fiction that has involved real world agencies or businesses of one sort or another, in which a “bad guy” operated within them, and don’t remember hearing of defamation cases.

It will be interesting to hear responses from those with legal expertise.

IANAL, but I am a writer (so to speak.)

I believe the “prominent public persons” thing would disallow the Saudi royals from suing for defamation.

A fictional terrorist from Oxford would, by itself, provide only a loose association. There have been all sorts of creeps, weirdos, and criminals who’d been to Oxford. If you said, “Oxford is where they train people to be terrorists,” that’d be bad. But “Jack, the terrorist, spent two years at Oxford” is just a fictional characterization. That degree of “real world” setting happens all the time in crime fiction.

A real-life high-tech company will have both the power (lawyers!) and the interest to make life uncomfortable for you if you wrote too explicitly about them in a fictional context. It’s probably best not to take that specific chance.

Interesting - but is this an American law vs. international law thing?

I doubt if there’s any international law relating to defamation.

And I’d be surprised if any organisation would sue for defamation merely on the basis of a fictional association with a villainous fictional character. If they’d any common sense, they wouldn’t waste their money giving the story any greater publicity.

If it were asserted that the entire organisation (i.e., anyone involved in running it) was engaged in some criminal conspiracy, that might be a different matter. But defamation also depends on whether any reasonable person would believe the assertion in question, surely?

If Robert Harris can get away with basically alleging Cherie Blair was a CIA agent and Tony her stooge in The Ghost Writer I think you’ll be fine.

If associating a psychotic and evil murderer with Oxford University could get you in trouble Colin Dexter and the producers of Morse, Lewis, and Endeavourwould have been in goal years ago. It seemed that every week an Oxford college threw up an evil don (or sometimes a whole gaggle of them!). :slight_smile:

Under U.S. law, defamation is a false statement of fact that tends to harm the reputation of an identifiable person.

So fictional characters aren’t defamatory unless you can argue that readers will believe it to be a claim of fact, and that’s not an easy argument to make.

Isn’t that what the standard “All characters and organizations appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental” disclaimer is all about?

Oxford would never put them in goal when they have Sam Slocombe.

Pretty much, yes.

Yes, but it has little legal effect; it’s just to keep away obvious nuisance suits from people who have the same name. But if you portray a real life figure in your work, and it’s libelous, the disclaimer is just a minor speed bump.

Since libel is a false statement of fact, creating a fictional character related to real people doesn’t meet the criteria. If there’s a suit, your first line of defense is that it’s not portrayed as fact, which is simple enough to do if you write about fictional events.

The rule for public figures is even more restrictive – you must have published something as fact, even after knowing it’s false. Those suing have to provide evidence that you knew that, which is a very high bar.

Here’s a lawsuit from a hacky sack champion who claimed that a fictional character’s fictional breaking of a hacky sack record is defamatory to him, the actual record holder. The suit was dismissed with prejudice.

Don’t be surprised if your book is banned in Saudi Arabia but I wouldn’t worry unless you plan on making a haj.

Where would even be the borders? If the fictional terrorist is a Texan, does that defame the State of Texas? Or the whole United States?

Unless you claim that the fictional character was associated with real group X and they made him into a terrorist, you should be good.

It may help further if you put an additional layer of fiction between your terrorist and the real group.make him the scion of a non-existing branch of the Saudi family. And he has was in St Paul’s College when in Oxford. And so on.

There are times when I wonder if it’s time for there to be an Anti-British Defamation League in Hollywood, given the number of effete British villains they seem to go for. But I suppose it keeps a lot of our actors in work.

Now that’s funny! (A little sad, too, but funny.)

It also puts all writers on notice, everywhere, that there can always be some clueless dolt who will file a lawsuit against them, for any damn reason at all…or no reason whatever! Anybody who can print out the papers from an on-line legal reference and pay the filing fee can cause days and days of hassle for anybody.

Fortunately, judges know this, and will usually give the necessary dismissal.

(A friend of mine, as a law student, filed a request for dismissal against a lawsuit that named “The Catholic Church” – specifically naming the local diocese – which sued them for “Not teaching the gospel properly.” Dismissed in a Herculean Heartbeat.)