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Lets say we choose a random town off of google maps on which to base a story where the local authorities (we won't say police, or whatnot, but local authorities) perform an investigation that is completely off-protocol and basically corrupt.

Or something like that...the local authorities of X CITY Y STATE are (in a fictional context) completely corrupt and self serving.

The story becomes a hit, and suddenly this previously unknown town has a bad reputation completely based on a random fictional account.

Is this, in the writer's world, a scenario that already has guidelines?

Can a city create a lawsuit against an author for a bad portrayal in fiction?

  • This is a specific case of this question on using the real world in writing, and there are also some good answers about murder in a real-life location. See if those answer your question? – Standback Feb 5 '15 at 9:41
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    I'd appreciate opinions on whether this question is a duplicate of the linked questions :) – Standback Feb 5 '15 at 9:41
  • @Standback I'd say either or both could be duplicates, and also We Are Not Lawyers. – Lauren-Reinstate-Monica-Ipsum Feb 5 '15 at 11:28
  • Anyone can sue anyone for anything. Now, whether the case would stand in court... Probably if you name some authority figures, portraying them as completely different than real ones, you're safe. – SF. Feb 5 '15 at 14:28
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Only people can be libelled or slandered. Places cannot.

Provided that you do not write in a way whereby specific public officials could make a case that you are attacking their personal behaviour and reputations, then whatever you think about a place is your own business.

In most western-type jurisdictions, the dead cannot be libelled (that is certainly the case here in the UK which has some of the strictest libel laws around).

The above all assumes you live in a law-abiding country rather than a dictatorship. In those places, all bets are off.

Finally: just because you cannot libel or slander a city doesn't mean that those who operate that city won't get angry. You are not guaranteed a peaceful life if you slag off somewhere that people care about even if they have no direct recourse to the law!

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I am not a lawyer, so this is from a writer's, not legal point of view.

As it were, anyone can sue anybody for anything at any time. So the issue is, how have people minimized the possibility of this happening (and worse, losing)

One form of "protection" that has been used by some authors and publishers is to slightly "misspell" the place in question. For instance, if something supposedly took place on the Brooklyn Bridge, you'd make it the BrookLINE Bridge.

Another example was when "Don" (Dan) Rather announced the fictitious start of World War III (as part of the plot). The reason for misspelling his name was to communicate the idea of "nationally known newscaster," not the actual person.

What you are doing here is creating a "parallel" universe. Perhaps the classic example was "The Wizard of Oz." (U.S.).

By using a slight misspelling, you are alluding to the place of your choice (for fictitious purposes), but disclaiming that the fictitious events in your book actually took place there.

Also, the slight misspelling weakens the party's "standing" to sue (unless the similarities are so strong that the name change is effectively overridden). Brookline bridge? Not the same as Brooklyn Bridge. Don Rather? No, your name is Dan.

  • (DIsclaimer: I'm not a lawyer either.) If I were writing something that might motivate someone to sue, I wouldn't rely on a slight spelling change. If the change is so transparent that anyone can see through it, then your writing still has every bit as much capacity to do damage as it would have if it were spelled correctly. Altering a spelling might provide an extra margin of safety if you are already on solid ground, but I doubt that it would transform something actionable into something safe. – DLH May 3 '17 at 12:50
  • @DLH: I said (in my revision) that a name change "weakens" someone's standing to sue (by creating a reasonable doubt). I did not say that it eliminates it. But every little bit helps. – Tom Au May 3 '17 at 17:09
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At least in the U.S.A., just about anyone (human or corporate) can sue just about anyone for just about anything. All it takes is a specious legal theory of damages to get past the first step. By then, a lot of money has been spent. Check out the Wikipedia article, "Food Libel Laws."

I advise you to create an entirely fictional town, which is not specifically identified with some real town. This is what Raymond Chandler did, in some of his famous detective novels, set in the greater Los Angeles area of his own era. The local officials were corrupt, and so forth. But (other than being somewhere near L.A.) it was no particular town.

If someone reading that books says to himself, "Ah, the author must mean XYZ City, because veryone knows they're corrupt," That's not the author's fault.

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