Correcting or Retracting Your Work After Publication

As you publish your work online you may want to correct things you have previously published. This may occur when someone contacts you and asks you to correct or retract your statements, or, you might decide on your own that something you've published needs to be changed. While the terms correction and retraction are sometimes used interchangeably, in general, a correction alerts your audience to factual errors that do not take away from your main point, while a retraction informs your audience of factual errors that impact the main point of the statements.

Your willingness to correct past errors in your work will provide several benefits. First, it will make your work more accurate and reliable. This will increase your credibility, influence, and (hopefully) your page views.

Second, it will likely diminish your liability for defamation and other potential legal claims. Keep in mind that correcting or retracting something you've previously published won't not necessarily mean that you will escape liability. Although a retraction might satisfy the person making the request, in some cases the requester may still sue you for defamation.

This section will provide you with an overview of the laws governing retractions and provide some practical tips for handing retraction requests.

Retraction Laws

A growing number of states have laws -- both statutory and case law -- that require that a plaintiff must first request a retraction before they can recover certain types of damages in a defamation lawsuit. Keep in mind that each state defines what is required under its law and the procedures vary from state to state. You should consult your individual state guide for specifics on how the law operates in your jurisdiction.

Generally speaking, states that have retraction laws require the following:

  1. A party that believes it has been defamed must request a retraction or service notice of the allegedly libelous statements before proceeding with a lawsuit

  2. The request or notice must be made within a reasonable period of time after publication of the allegedly defamatory statement; and

  3. If the publisher issues a "frank and full" retraction of defamatory statement, he or she will be entitled to a reduction in certain types of damages.

Retraction laws differ in their impact on the damages available to a plaintiff. In the majority of states, a retraction prevents a plaintiff from recovering punitive damages unless the plaintiff can prove malice on the part of the defendant. Even if the plaintiff proves malice, a timely retraction can mitigate any punitive damages. For example, see the retraction statutes in Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia. And in one state, North Dakota, which has adopted the Uniform Correction Act, a plaintiff can only recover his out-of-pocket costs (i.e., direct economic losses) if the defendant has made a timely retraction. Some states without retraction statutes have similar principles in their common law. In these states, a defendant's retraction can be used to demonstrate an absence of malice in a defamation suit.

Most retraction laws were created before the Internet made online publishing a reality. As a result, it is not clear whether many of these laws apply to online publishers. North Dakota is the only state whose retraction statute specifically mentions electronic publications. Although several other states' retraction statutes are broad enough to include online publications, relatively few courts have addressed the issue.

This is likely a subject that will be determined by future courts and legislators, so consult your individual state guide for trends in your jurisdiction. For example, California's retraction statute, Cal. Civ. Code § 48a, applies to the publication of libel in a newspaper or slander by radio broadcast. Although the statute does not specifically state that it only applies to newspapers in print, two recent court decisions in California suggest that an online publication may be a "newspaper" if certain conditions are met. Refer to the section on California's retraction statute for details on these decisions.

Even if your state's retraction statute does not apply to internet publications, publishing a retraction is often good practice if you realize that you have made a factual error. Often this will be enough to satisfy a potential plaintiff.

Handling Retraction Requests

Receiving a retraction request may be an indication of a pending lawsuit, and you should carefully consider your legal liability before publishing a retraction that admits liability. If you do not have a lawyer you can consult with, refer to the section on finding legal help for some guidance. A lawyer experienced in defamation law can help you assess the validity of the retraction request, discuss the potential for a defamation claim, determine which state's defamation and retraction law applies, and help you craft an appropriate retraction notice.

Look closely at the specifics of the request and evaluate the accuracy of your work. If the retraction request contains specific, convincing details of factual errors, and your own grounds for making those factual statements appear shaky, a retraction might be a good idea to stave off a potential lawsuit and improve the reliability of your work. (Many potential defamation plaintiffs are satisfied with a correction and an apology because they do not want to draw yet more attention to the negative statements published about themselves.) On the other hand, if the retraction request is vague and you are confident that the information you published is accurate, the request may be an empty threat.

Responding to a retraction request will vary with the nature of your statements and the details of your state's retraction statute or case law. Generally speaking, to be effective, a retraction must be a "frank and full" withdrawal of the defamatory accusation. Merely stating that the subject of the statement denies the accusation is not enough, nor is a weak, grudging, or half-hearted correction. Additionally, the retraction must appear in a manner comparable to that of the original publication and be disseminated to the same audience.

If your state's law does not cover online work, tailor your retraction to match the guidelines established by your state's statute for the print media by publishing the retraction in an equal size and prominence to the original story, and reaching the same audience as the original. You should account for the different ways your audience accesses your content to make sure the retraction is sufficiently prominent. For example, if the statements are in your blog, and send out your blog posts in a weekly newsletter, you should publish the retraction in both your blog and newsletter. Also, if your site provides an RSS feed, attach the retraction to the feed to ensure that you reach the same audience.

For additional information on what practical steps you should consider, see Practical Tips for Handling Requests to Correct or Remove Material.


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