Monday, January 7, 2008

Defamation, Libel and Slander

Defamation, Libel and Slander
The personal injury concept of "defamation" involves harm to a person's reputation. "Libel" and "slander" are two forms of defamation. Libel typically refers to defamation that is written or published, while slander is usually limited to oral defamation. Click on the links below for in-depth information on defamation, libel, and slander.
Defamation, Libel, and Slander - Basics
Defamation, Libel, and Slander: Background
Defamation Law Made Simple
Defamation, Libel, and Slander In-Depth
Elements of Libel and Slander
The Requirement of Fault
Defenses to Libel and Slander
Defamation, Libel, and Slander - Resources
Meeting with an Attorney: Defamation and Slander Form
Time Limits for Filing a Defamation Lawsuit: State Statutes of Limitation


Defamation, Libel, and Slander: Background
The law of defamation protects a person's reputation and good name against communications that are false and derogatory. Defamation consists of two torts: libel and slander. Libel consists of any defamation that can be seen, most typically in writing. Slander consists of an oral defamatory communications. The elements of libel and slander are nearly identical to one another.
Historically, the law governing slander focused on oral statements that were demeaning to others. By the 1500s, English courts treated slander actions as those for damages. Libel developed differently, however. English printers were required to be licensed by and give a bond to the government because the printed word was believed to be a threat to political stability. Libel included any criticism of the English government, and a person who committed libel committed a crime. This history carried over in part to the United States, where Congress under the presidency of John Adams passed the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to criticize the government. Congress and the courts eventually abandoned this approach to libel, and the law of libel is now focused on recovery of damages in civil cases.
Beginning with the landmark decision in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that the law of defamation has a constitutional dimension. Under this case and subsequent cases, the Court has balanced individual interests in reputation with the interests of free speech among society. This approach has altered the rules governing libel and slander, especially where a communication is about a public official or figure, or where the communication is about a matter of public concern.
Can I Say That? Defamation Law Made Simple
by Attorney Emily Doskow
Just how far does freedom of speech extend? Learn the basic law of defamation -- the rules about who can say what, about whom.
"Defamation" is a catch-all term for any statement that hurts someone's reputation. Written defamation is called "libel," and spoken defamation is called "slander." Defamation is not a crime, but it is a "tort" (a civil wrong, rather than a criminal wrong). A person who has been defamed can sue the person who did the defaming.
Defamation law tries to balance competing interests: On the one hand, people should not ruin others' lives by telling lies about them; but on the other hand, people should be able to speak freely without fear of litigation over every insult, disagreement, or mistake. Political and social disagreement is important in a free society, and we obviously don't all share the same opinions or beliefs. For instance, political opponents often reach opposite conclusions from the same facts, and editorial cartoonists often exaggerate facts to make their point.
What the victim must prove to establish that defamation occurred
The law of defamation varies from state to state, but there are some generally accepted rules. If you believe you are have been "defamed," to prove it you usually have to show there's been a statement that is all of the following:
published
false
injurious
unprivileged.
Let's look at each of these elements in detail.
1. First, the "statement" can be spoken, written, pictured, or even gestured. Because written statements last longer than spoken statements, most courts, juries, and insurance companies consider libel more harmful than slander.
2. "Published" means that a third party heard or saw the statement -- that is, someone other than the person who made the statement or the person the statement was about. "Published" doesn't necessarily mean that the statement was printed in a book -- it just needs to have been made public through television, radio, speeches, gossip, or even loud conversation. Of course, it could also have been written in magazines, books, newspapers, leaflets, or on picket signs.
3. A defamatory statement must be false -- otherwise it's not considered damaging. Even terribly mean or disparaging things are not defamatory if the shoe fits. Most opinions don't count as defamation because they can't be proved to be objectively false. For instance, when a reviewer says, "That was the worst book I've read all year," she's not defaming the author, because the statement can't be proven to be false.
4. The statement must be "injurious." Since the whole point of defamation law is to take care of injuries to reputation, those suing for defamation must show how their reputations were hurt by the false statement -- for example, the person lost work; was shunned by neighbors, friends, or family members; or was harassed by the press. Someone who already had a terrible reputation most likely won't collect much in a defamation suit.
5. Finally, to qualify as a defamatory statement, the offending statement must be "unprivileged." Under some circumstances, you cannot sue someone for defamation even if they make a statement that can be proved false. For example, witnesses who testify falsely in court or at a deposition can't be sued. (Although witnesses who testify to something they know is false could theoretically be prosecuted for perjury.) Lawmakers have decided that in these and other situations, which are considered "privileged," free speech is so important that the speakers should not be constrained by worries that they will be sued for defamation. Lawmakers themsleves also enjoy this privilege: They aren't liable for statements made in the legislative chamber or in official materials, even if they say or write things that would otherwise be defamatory.
Can I Say That? Defamation Law Made Simple
Public officials and figures have a harder time proving defamation
The public has a right to criticize the people who govern them, so the least protection from defamation is given to public officials. When officials are accused of something that involves their behavior in office, they have to prove all of the above elements of defamation and they must also prove that the defendant acted with "actual malice." (For a definition of actual malice, see the "History of Defamation and the First Amendment, below.")
People who aren't elected but who are still public figures because they are influential or famous -- like movie stars -- also have to prove that defamatory statements were made with actual malice, in most cases.
History of Defamation and the First Amendment
In the landmark 1964 case of New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court held that certain defamatory statements were protected by the First Amendment. The case involved a newspaper article that said unflattering things about a public figure, a politician. The Court pointed to "a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." The Court acknowledged that in public discussions -- especially about public figures like politicians -- mistakes can be made. If those mistakes are "honestly made," the Court said, they should be protected from defamation actions. The court made a rule that public officials could sue for statements made about their public conduct only if the statements were made with "actual malice."
"Actual malice" means that the person who made the statement knew it wasn't true, or didn't care whether it was true or not and was reckless with the truth -- for example, when someone has doubts about the truth of a statement but does not bother to check further before publishing it.
Later cases have built upon the New York Times rule, so that now the law balances the rules of defamation law with the interests of the First Amendment. The result is that whether defamation is actionable depends on what was said, who it was about, and whether it was a subject of public interest and thus protected by the First Amendment.
Private people who are defamed have more protection than public figures -- freedom of speech isn't as important when the statements don't involve an issue of public interest. A private person who is defamed can prevail without having to prove that the defamer acted with actual malice.
Resources
Defamation law aims to strike a balance between allowing the distribution of information, ideas, and opinions, and protecting people from having lies told about them. It's a complicated area of law. If you have more questions, check your local law library or http://www.nolo.com for more about the First Amendment and freedom of speech, the rights and responsibilities of the press, invasion of privacy, hate speech, and Internet speech.