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The Jaws of the Court of Public Opinion


"The public is the only critic

 whose opinion means

anything at all"

Mark Twain


Regardless in what capacity you are such as a politician, business owner, corporate executive, a clergyman, a publisher, etc., try to avoid being caught in the jaws of the court of public opinion when you are accused of having made a mistake. You owe it to yourself not to participate in it for the perils are overwhelmingly deep quagmire.


As we all know, cases being tried in the court of public opinion so often through the media that most of us may have forgotten what it really does to the person accused of any wrongdoings. It is not a real court, but a nebulous form where the powerful news media and social network organizations, popular personalities and the like are the only voices rendering judgment on the accused. They shun all the correct procedures of accepted rules and principles of the actual court of law.

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In this circus of a makeshift court, an accusation is normally regarded as "evidence and a final verdict" without any consideration to the presumption of innocence.  The accused is usually defenseless and has no way to face their accusers.  If rules in the court of public opinion were to exist, they would be applied inconsistently or changed as deemed necessary by the accusers. The court of public opinion cannot ensure the same protection as that of the real court of law does. For example, it does not require the accuser to provide evidence of guilt beyond reasonable doubt. A fair trial is usually replaced by an artificially concocted version trumpeted up by the media. 


Facts are important in determining guilt, but there are no standards of accuracy. Furthermore, they are seldom brought into the judgment of an accused. All too often, reason is replaced with emotion and rhetoric through the speed of the Internet which spreads a good story faster than relevant facts. This is a farcical justice system which goes counter the principle of innocent until proven guilty.


In contrast, the court of law, although not always perfect and it has been known to fail, it is not as perilous as the court of public opinion. The justice system is established to be impartial unlike the court of opinion does not hide its bias. An individual is judged as being guilty without the necessity of providing proof. As a consequence, mistakes are hardly ever remedied through the kangaroo court of justice system. Many people end up with ruined reputations and careers which are beyond easy repair.


Assuming a CEO of a certain company is accused of sexual misconduct. Let us examine how he may be treated through the court of law and through the court of public opinion. We shall see that there are well-established differences between the two types of courts:


In the court of public opinion, a speedy trial is always carried out through the news media and social networks while the court of law takes months or even years to reach a verdict.


Although the accused in the court of public opinion has the right to remain silent, it may very well be held against him. Silence is looked upon as indicative of being guilty.


In a court of public opinion, no one is sworn to tell the truth but the truth. Lies are seldom questioned plus rumors and innuendos can be admitted for the prosecution, but not for the defense.


Hearsay is the backbone of the court of public opinion. It is frequently encouraged to serve as factual fact.


In the court of public opinion, facts lie, but people don't. What is more, no one will be held responsible for perjury as is done in the court of law.

Once statements are made public through the court of public opinion, there is no recourse to instruct people to disregard them.


There is no one judge; there are many, sometimes a mob, who pass judgment on the accused in the court of public opinion.


Past indiscretions and misconduct are always juicy topics in the court of public opinion; they are generally inadmissible in a court of law.


Good character of the accused does not count in the court of public opinion for character references are considered suspect and subject to bribery or cronyism.


Remember, once the verdict is rendered and a sentence handed down in the court of public opinion, there are no recourse for appeals.


In sum, a court of public opinion generally influences public perception and shore up support for one side or another in a court case. This happens frequently when a group takes action against the accused outside of the justice system. The rationale for the existence for a court of public opinion is to move an agenda forward and to use it as a means to an end in order to destroy a person. Courts are an ancient system of justice and society today cannot function fairly without them.


Being an alternative system of justice, the court of public opinion is different from the traditional court system. For one thing, this type court is based on reputation, revenge, public shaming, and the likes and dislikes of the crowd. This court delivers reputational justice. Arguments are generally measured in relation to reputation. Should someone make a claim that clashes with the reputation of the parties, then it is likely to be disbelieved.


Reputation is a valued commodity. Any loss of reputation is the penalty this court imposes. In that respect, it does not compensate the injured party. More often, it exacts revenge or retribution. Thus, the court of public opinion has major limitations. It works better for revenge than for dispute resolution. It can punish a CEO for even having consensual sex with one of the employees. It is similar to medieval notion of "fama", or reputation. In many other ways, it is like a mob justice with varying results running the gamut from beneficial to most of the time terrible.


Rushing to judgment often deprives an accused person's rights and when someone's reputation is on the line, mistakes can be irreparable. Losing one's constitutional rights and the return of mob justice would go counter the tenets of civil society. A group of people who jumps at a conclusion on the basis of their uncontrolled emotions or who falls prey to the passionate rhetoric of others lose the freedom which is predicated on the rule of law. 


The jaws of the court of public opinion are strong and destructive. Beware the fangs of the court of public opinion. Sometimes, it helps to lessen the zeal of the perpetrators behind the court of public opinion by throwing oneself on the mercy of the court of public opinion by applying the true and tested tools of regret, reform, and restitution or simply by tendering your resignation to appease the determined accuser from continuing the harassment unabated blowing up a case into a national scandal. However, in the event, you as the targeted victim feels that you are innocent, then sue the accusers for tort or libel for defamation of your reputation as soon as you find a good attorney to defend you in the court of law on civil legal liability. Taking quickly legal steps for damage control would yield dividends in the long run for protecting one's reputation in the business world where news travels faster than in any other social environment.



Z. S. Demirdjian, Ph.D.

Senior Review Editor

California State University, Long Beach


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