If someone has injured your good name through something they’ve said, do you have grounds for a lawsuit? We’ll explain the difference between defamation, slander, and libel.
Personal injury lawsuits frequently focus on injuries to your body and your loved one. If you are permanently scarred because of someone else’s negligence, you deserve compensation. If you lose your child to a drunk driver, the driver has to pay.
American tort law also protects against other kinds of injuries. A tort is a “civil wrong,” or an injury caused by a non-criminal act. Even though the act is not criminal, the person who did it still has a legal obligation to fix the injury they caused.
A person’s reputation is an extremely valuable asset. Defamation law protects it from unjust injury. For example, if your neighbor falsely tells the entire neighborhood that you were convicted of a felony, they have damaged your standing in the community.
If your reputation is damaged by someone’s lies, you can win damages just as if you had been physically injured by their negligence or intentional misbehavior.
As with all personal injury claims, though, the facts matter. Was the lie about you spread by word of mouth or through a newspaper? What kind of lie was it? Are you a famous person or just a private individual?
We’ll explain how the answers to these questions can make a difference in a defamation of character lawsuit and what kinds of claims they allow you to make.
Basics of All Defamation Claims
Whether a statement is made by mouth (slander) or print (libel), this area of law requires certain facts for you to proceed with your defamation claim.
1. A Defamatory Statement
First, the statement made about you must be defamatory, which means that it causes people to dislike you or think less of you. A defamatory statement can also be one that harms your business or your ability to get new business.
2. A Statement of Fact, Not Opinion
Second, the statement must be one of fact, not an opinion. The United States Supreme Court once wrote:
“There is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries, but on the competition of other ideas.”
In other words, you cannot win a defamation claim simply because someone called you stupid or said you have bad taste in clothes. The defamatory statement must be a fact one can prove or disprove. Examples of defamatory statements of fact would be: “He committed bank fraud,” or “She cheated on her college entrance tests.”
3. Communication to Someone Else
Third, the statement must be published to a third person. Though we usually think of the word “publish” in connection with print media, here it just means that the person defaming you communicated the statement to someone else.
Note that the statement cannot legally be defamation unless it is said or otherwise communicated to a third person. Statements made only to you do not count. Things said in the heat of a private argument, no matter how terrible or untrue, are not legal defamation.
4. Necessary Legal Fault
Legal fault is a critical part of defamation claims that many non-lawyers do not understand. It makes a difference if the person being defamed is a private individual or a famous person.
Celebrities, public officials and other newsworthy people are considered “public figures.” This is because there is a recognized public interest in reporting on and debating on these figures.
Under the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, public figures will have a difficult time winning defamation claims. The legal burden of proof for them is much higher than for private citizens.
In order for a private citizen to win a defamation claim, they only need to show that the defamatory statement was false and was made negligently. In other words, the person making the statement only had to be careless in making the statement in order to have committed defamation. If someone passed along a rumor without verifying it, they would meet this standard of fault.
A public figure, however, must show that a statement was made with actual malice in order to win. In this context, “actual malice” means that the person making the defamatory statement did so with specific intent to injure. As any prosecutor can tell you, proving intent is the hardest part of a case. Public figures, therefore, have a big obstacle to winning that private citizens don’t.
5. A Statement Caused Damage
Finally, the defamation against you has to have caused damage to your reputation. This may take the form of damage to your business. Maybe you lost clients because they wrongly thought that you were a felon. Maybe your child was bullied at school because of untrue rumors about you, and you had to place them in a new private school.
Whatever the damages you have suffered, you will normally have to prove them just as you would prove damages in any personal injury lawsuit. Emotional distress damages will likely be important, so you will need to collect that evidence as well.
There is one notable exception to the requirement that you must prove damages. Some types of defamation qualify as “defamation per se.” These are statements that are so vile or disgusting that the law presumes your damages, meaning they do not have to be proven.
Defamatory statements that qualify as defamation per se include:
- An accusation of a major crime, not traffic tickets or other minor offenses
- An imputation of a loathsome or serious disease — for example, leprosy
- A statement — such as, “That psychiatrist steals from his patients” — that interferes with your business or profession
- A charge of serious sexual misconduct you never committed
Defamation vs. Slander vs. Libel
Another important point is that defamation is usually either spoken or written.
Note that libel can include forms of communication other than printed publications, such as faked pictures or social media. Libel also applies to video because that is considered a document rather than an oral statement.
There are several key differences between the two types of defamation. Libel is typically easier to prove because it is made in a permanent medium. Slander, on the other hand, is based on the spoken word and harder to nail down. For this same reason, it can be more difficult to get presumed damages for slander, even if it is defamation per se.
Because defamation can also be committed by someone who repeats someone else’s defamatory statement, a case for slander can create one for libel.
For example, let’s say your ex-spouse tells a large group of people that you went to prison for murder. A local television station films the slanderous statement and then airs it on the news. Your claim against your ex-spouse would be for slander. But you could also bring a separate lawsuit against the television station for libel.
Privileges: Legal Defamatory Statements
You can’t always win defamation suits simply because somebody said or wrote something defamatory about you.
Freedom of speech and the First Amendment are foundational aspects of American society, and defamation law reflects that. Thus, you should be aware of a few exceptions to defamation.
First, truth is an absolute defense. Under American law, if somebody says something about you that is true, you cannot win a defamation claim based on that statement, even if the statement is harmful to you.
Second, private statements that are meant to be confidential are typically also excluded. Statements made under the attorney-client privilege or the doctor-patient privilege are notable examples.
Third, there are qualified privileges, or certain situations that the law recognizes are acceptable for these statements. A common one is when a former employer is talking to a potential employer about your performance.
Another example of qualified privilege is testimony before a court or legislative body. Both of these proceedings have an interest in exploring the facts and encouraging witnesses to be truthful.
Note that qualified privileges may not protect the speaker if you can prove that the person making the statement did so maliciously (i.e., they were trying to hurt you) or with reckless disregard for the truth (i.e., they didn’t care whether the statement was actually true or not).
Protect Your Reputation
As the childhood saying goes, sticks and stones can break your bones. Names do hurt, however. Untrue and defamatory statements can destroy your business and your life. The law recognizes your ability to protect your reputation from unfair, malicious and, in some cases, even negligent attacks on your character.
If you or a loved one has been the subject of a defamatory attack, you should take action as soon as possible. Contact a qualified attorney in your state for a free consultation and legal advice regarding your defamation case.
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