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LEGAL DICTIONARY

Defamation

What Is Defamation?

Defamation is the legal term for a false statement that harms someone else’s reputation. The tort law of defamation includes two forms —libel and slander.

Libel is the publication of a defamatory statement in written form. Libel can include both physical writing as well as electronic writing, such as the following forms:

  • Statements in a newspaper or magazine article
  • TV or radio broadcast
  • Handwritten letter
  • Email
  • Blog
  • Tweets
  • Text posts on social media
  • Online video or statement

Slander involves verbal statements. It could include remarks made in public or a statement made in private, which someone reports later.

Defamation laws exist to protect the reputations of individuals and businesses from untrue accusations or complaints. Defamation and slander laws by state can vary. For example, California has its own law that defines elements of defamation and how these suits should be filed. Other states with defamation laws include Georgia, Michigan, Texas and others.

Defamation is covered under the common law of the U.S. in many cases. However, the Constitution’s first amendment eliminates strict liability in defamation cases because of the effect it can have on freedom of speech.

In other words, if courts were to apply strict liability in every defamation case, Americans might be constrained from writing or saying things they have the right to communicate.

How Does Someone Prove Defamation?

Factual statements —no matter how harmful they may be— are not considered defamatory. Therefore, in order to prove defamation to the court, the plaintiff must demonstrate four things have occurred:

  • A false statement was given as fact.
  • The falsehood was published or communicated to a third party.
  • The defendant showed negligence.
  • The false statement caused harm to the plaintiff.
  • The statement is not in a privileged category (see below).

The “harm” that occurs in a defamation case usually involves damage to the plaintiff’s reputation. That harm can, in turn, hurt an individual or a company’s ability to do business and expose them to contempt, ridicule, or even hatred by other members of society.

What Are the Defenses You Can Make to a Defamation Claim?

The primary factors that can defend someone against defamation include the following:

  • Justification. If the court determines that the statement in question is true, it may not be ruled as defamatory.
  • Honest opinion (or fair comment). If the court finds that the defendant expressed their honest opinion based on the fact they had at the time, it may not be ruled as defamatory.
  • Public interest. If the defendant reasonably believed they were acting in the public’s best interest, the case may not be ruled as defamation.
  • Privilege. In some situations, such as other court proceedings, statements that might otherwise be defamatory may not be regarded as such.
  • Consent. If the plaintiff agreed to the publication of the defamatory statements or already accepted an apology, the defamation case may not continue.

Who Is Responsible For Defamation?

The individuals who made the defamatory comments are the ones the court holds responsible. However, the publishers of the statement also can be sued in a defamation case.

These other “publishers” can include editors, printers, networks, and website operators. The question of whether online platforms are liable for what people post on their sites is a topic of current debate.

Helpful Resources:

Cornell Law - Defamation

Law Shelf - General Principles of Defamation

Library of Congress - First Amendment

Britannica - Defamation, Slander vs. Libel

Freedom Forum Institute - A Quick Guide to Libel Law

HG.org - Defamation Law

What Is Defamation?

Defamation is the legal term for a false statement that harms someone else’s reputation. The tort law of defamation includes two forms —libel and slander.

Libel is the publication of a defamatory statement in written form. Libel can include both physical writing as well as electronic writing, such as the following forms:

  • Statements in a newspaper or magazine article
  • TV or radio broadcast
  • Handwritten letter
  • Email
  • Blog
  • Tweets
  • Text posts on social media
  • Online video or statement

Slander involves verbal statements. It could include remarks made in public or a statement made in private, which someone reports later.

Defamation laws exist to protect the reputations of individuals and businesses from untrue accusations or complaints. Defamation and slander laws by state can vary. For example, California has its own law that defines elements of defamation and how these suits should be filed. Other states with defamation laws include Georgia, Michigan, Texas and others.

Defamation is covered under the common law of the U.S. in many cases. However, the Constitution’s first amendment eliminates strict liability in defamation cases because of the effect it can have on freedom of speech.

In other words, if courts were to apply strict liability in every defamation case, Americans might be constrained from writing or saying things they have the right to communicate.

How Does Someone Prove Defamation?

Factual statements —no matter how harmful they may be— are not considered defamatory. Therefore, in order to prove defamation to the court, the plaintiff must demonstrate four things have occurred:

  • A false statement was given as fact.
  • The falsehood was published or communicated to a third party.
  • The defendant showed negligence.
  • The false statement caused harm to the plaintiff.
  • The statement is not in a privileged category (see below).

The “harm” that occurs in a defamation case usually involves damage to the plaintiff’s reputation. That harm can, in turn, hurt an individual or a company’s ability to do business and expose them to contempt, ridicule, or even hatred by other members of society.

What Are the Defenses You Can Make to a Defamation Claim?

The primary factors that can defend someone against defamation include the following:

  • Justification. If the court determines that the statement in question is true, it may not be ruled as defamatory.
  • Honest opinion (or fair comment). If the court finds that the defendant expressed their honest opinion based on the fact they had at the time, it may not be ruled as defamatory.
  • Public interest. If the defendant reasonably believed they were acting in the public’s best interest, the case may not be ruled as defamation.
  • Privilege. In some situations, such as other court proceedings, statements that might otherwise be defamatory may not be regarded as such.
  • Consent. If the plaintiff agreed to the publication of the defamatory statements or already accepted an apology, the defamation case may not continue.

Who Is Responsible For Defamation?

The individuals who made the defamatory comments are the ones the court holds responsible. However, the publishers of the statement also can be sued in a defamation case.

These other “publishers” can include editors, printers, networks, and website operators. The question of whether online platforms are liable for what people post on their sites is a topic of current debate.

Helpful Resources:

Cornell Law - Defamation

Law Shelf - General Principles of Defamation

Library of Congress - First Amendment

Britannica - Defamation, Slander vs. Libel

Freedom Forum Institute - A Quick Guide to Libel Law

HG.org - Defamation Law