The Small Penis Rule – avoiding defamation suits as a novelist

While scrolling down through my Facebook feed last week, mining my way through the photos of my friends’ small children and recently cooked dinners, I came across a reference to the Small Penis Rule, which piqued my interest.

The Small Penis Rules is apparently an informal strategy used by authors to avoid being sued for defamation. It seems to have first been described by American lawyer Leon Friedman in a 1998 New York Times article:

“…For a fictional portrait to be actionable, it must be so accurate that a reader of the book would have no problem linking the two,” said Mr. Friedman. Thus, he continued, libel lawyers have what is known as ‘the small penis rule.’ One way authors can protect themselves from libel suits is to say that a character has a small penis, Mr. Friedman said. “Now no male is going to come forward and say, ‘That character with a very small penis, that’s me!’ “

I thought of this rule when I read an article on stuff.co.nz that Dominique Strauss-Kahn is intending to sue the producers of the film Welcome to New York, which tells the story of an economist charged with raping a hotel maid. Apparently, the film chronicles the story of the economist’s arrest, the eventual withdrawal of criminal charges and the subsequent spate of allegations from other women in a way that almost exactly mimics Mr Strauss-Kahn’s reality.

Admittedly, the director, Abel Ferrara has apparently made it clear that the film was based on Mr Strauss-Kahn’s case. However, if he hadn’t been so clear, would it make any difference to the contemplated legal proceedings if his main character, the economist, was endowed with a small penis? Would Mr Strauss-Kahn care to put up his hand and say, “That character with a very small penis, that’s me!”?

On the flip side though, it may be pertinent to ask whether Mr Ferrara would have found anyone to play his lead character in such circumstances…

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