Suppose I wrote a book. Suppose it had a normal modern fictional story about it. Suppose that the characters aren't based on real people and have no relation to anyone. Suppose in the background of the story I'd depict Tim Tebow shooting heroin in the bathroom (not to sound goofy; it's just an example) but its not a major plot point, but only serves as device to introduce the setting.

Basically, because its a minor detail, would this be considered "harsh fiction" or "libel" and just how far does it extend?

Just because it was said in one line of text doesn't mean I'm defaming Tebow; I'm simply posing a fictional scenario to give setting that the world the character is in is a world based off of pop culture (to allude to modern society in the US).

Suppose instead I wrote a character saying, "Brittany Spears is a whore." Despite that its a fictional character saying something that literally is meant to defame Brittany, is not meant in true reality to defame her. (Even though she already defamed herself. haha)

Does libel extend this easily into fiction? Does it depend on how I write and what its about?

I'm not actually writing about Tebow or Spears. It was an example.

  • 3
    Welcome to Writers! This question has been asked before (although not as extensively as here): Legalities about fictionalizing current events. Do you feel the answers here address your question? Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 1:33
  • 1
    Don't forget, you can avoid the issue entirely by not naming names; don't show Tebow doing it, say a sportsman did it.
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 11:30
  • @CLockeWork While that is indeed a solution, it does have the unfortunate side-effect of losing the contextual reference of modern society that comes along with specific names being mentioned.
    – drusepth
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 14:19
  • I don't know @drusepth, anyone who would get the reference by the name would get it by the event, and anyone who doesn't know about it (I had to Google Tebow) wouldn't get it any more by the name than by the action. If your goal is to set the time it would be better to focus on larger events (Afghanistan, Crimea, Coalition Government in the UK, sudden far right movement across the EU) because these are the things that truly define the time, rather than short term celebrity scandals.
    – CLockeWork
    Commented Jul 22, 2014 at 14:30
  • 1
    @Teknikitsune In a way, it's not that different from most of the stylistic or plot-related questions I see on writers.SE. You can do the thing, sure, but ask yourself if it's worth it. Do the thing if the story needs it. Some stories need princesses who shapeshift into violet-eyed pegasi, and some stories need characters who gossip about celebrity drug addiction. Doing something just to see if you can doesn't produce good stories.
    – lea
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 6:47

3 Answers 3


Well, I'm a great believer in a very broad interpretation of freedom of speech. But surely even the most extreme advocates of freedom of speech would not say that it means you have the right to say absolutely anything that you want about anyone with no fear of consequences. Like if you said on the witness stand in court that you saw Mr Jones commit the murder, and then it later turns out that Mr Jones is completely innocent and you were lying because you have some personal vendetta against him, I don't think you would escape a perjury charge by claiming "freedom of speech", and you'd be hard pressed to find many people who'd say that that is a valid exercise of free speech.

Yes, there's a difference between fiction and non-fiction. If you wrote a newspaper article, which was presented as completely factual, in which you said that Tom Tebow uses heroin ... I don't know much about Mr Tebow, but I'm guessing that he does not use heroin ... that would be a pretty clear case for libel.

If you put a scene in a fiction story in which you depicted him using heroin that would be less clear. There was a case that went to the Supreme Court a few years ago where a pornographic magazine printed a cartoon depicting a well-known religious leader of the time having sex with his mother in an outhouse. The preacher sued for libel ... and lost. The court said that a reasonable person would understand the cartoon to be a joke -- a crude joke, but a joke -- and not a claim to be reporting actual events.

What are you trying to accomplish? If your point is just to add some cultural feel to a story, I'd say: Why take the risk of being sued for libel and having to defend yourself? Remember that whether someone can sue you is a very different question from whether someone can win a suit. Can someone sue you? Yes. People have sued for all sorts of ridiculous things. If it's ridiculous enough sometimes the court will order the plaintiff to pay the defendant's legal bills, but very often not. Are a couple of stray paragraphs in a story for flavor worth the risk of tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees?

If your point is just to add some flavor, I would think it would be counter-productive to put in things that are contrary to the person's character, or at least to what is known about him. I suppose that if you said that Mr Tebow was secretly a drug addict that some people who don't like Mr Tebow or his religion would laugh and say, "Yeah, he probably does do stuff like that. Those people are all a bunch of hypocrites." But someone who likes Mr Tebow or shares his religion would probably not find it amusing, possibly even offensive. And plenty of people would be saying, "What? Huh? That doesn't make sense."

I'd think you'd be more successful at adding cultural flavor by saying things that are morally neutral and clearly plausible. More like, "Tom Tebow scored a touchdown" or "He saw Brittany Spears on a magazine cover."

Of course if your goal is to make slams against people or groups that you don't like, that's a different story. If the reason you're writing this book is because you want to attack Brittany Spears or Tom Tebow or pop singers in general or Christians or Libertarians or environmentalists or whomever, then prompting lawsuits or at least threats of lawsuits would be a sign of success.

By the way, bear in mind that references to celebrities can be dated quickly. Sure, 50 years later people still know who the Beatles and Gilligan's Island were. But how many celebrities from 20 or more years ago can you name? Lots of people can't tell you who was president 20 years ago. I think very few could tell you who was vice-president, and fewer still could tell you who ran for president but lost.

  • As examples, of course. There are some many things I can write about that are not demeaning, yet if a lawyer read that, they'd jump on it faster than a starving lion.
    – user10145
    Commented Jul 23, 2014 at 19:49
  • IANAL, but as I understand libel law, if you say that a person did something illegal, that is "libel per se", automatically libelous if not true. If you say other things about a person, then they have to demonstrate harm. So if you said, "Tom Tebow was shooting up heroin in the bathroom", that's a crime, and so he'd have grounds for libel. But if you said, "Tom Tebow ate a chicken sandwich", that's not a crime. It's hard to see how the idea that he might eat chicken sandwiches could hurt Mr Tebow's reputation or cost him money. He wouldn't have much grounds for a suit. It's possible his ...
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 13:47
  • ... lawyers would still jump on you, but much less likely, and hard to see how they'd win. Making statements about a real person that don't involve illegal or scandalous behavior would make you a much smaller target. But anything you say COULD make someone mad enough to sue. Like I don't know, without researching the life of Mr Tebow, maybe he's a vegetarian and would object to being described as eating chicken. Or maybe he once publicly said that he hates chicken and would perceive your statement as saying he's a liar. Who knows?
    – Jay
    Commented Jul 24, 2014 at 13:52

Your question needs to be more specific. Under the heading of comedy and satire you can do almost anything (Watch a bit of Saturday Night Live).

It also depends the style of writing I continually rail against 'telling' - stating conclusions.


In a dark corner of the restaurant we saw Donald Trump taking money from drug-dealers.

In a dark corner of the restaurant I saw an orange-faced man accept a briefcase full of cash from some Russian speaking gentlemen.

"Isn't that Donald Trump?" I asked my date.

"Could be," she replied, squinting. "But, nah, don't think so. It's just some old guy using his Twitter account."

  • Yes. My understanding of libel law is, "That could be Donald Trump." is ok, but "That certainly is Donald Trump." is not ok. Even if he weren't a public figure.
    – Tom Au
    Commented May 30, 2017 at 17:12

Spears and Tebow are polar opposite cases and therefore worth discussing.

Spears is well known for her indiscretions. So if you had a character call her a "whore," that would probably fall under the category of "fair comment." Basically, you can't defame someone if their actual reputation matches what you called them, even if it is not literally true.

Tebow, on the other hand, has a squeaky clean image, and works hard to maintain it. Any statement that mars that image will "do damage" so it ought to be factual, or at least "compelling" (the legal standard) to the average person. Alleging illegal drug use is alleging a violation of the law, so there needs to be reasonable grounds for such an accusation; far more than someone being a "whore."

Both are public figures. For them to win a suit, they would have to prove either actual malice or "reckless disregard" for the truth, meaning that "mistake" is a defense. For instance, if there was a photo of Tebow holding a "bong," inferring that he used marijuana would probably not be "reckless," even though he factually never did.

I am not a lawyer, and am answering as a writer and prospective juror, "trier of fact."

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.