Most of the time, our first amendment rights to free speech protect just about anything we want to say. Most of the time it’s a very good thing. Sometimes, however, we’re all forced to read or listen to things that are uncomfortable, unpleasant, and even flat-out untrue. When false statements are made, either written or spoken, that cause provable harm to an individual, that’s defamation.
Defamation law attempts to balance two competing interests: preventing people from harm due to lies and false statements, and people’s right to speak freely without fear of litigation. Disagreement is an important part of a free society, and any laws that attempt to govern it need to be very specific and clear.
In order to prevent harm to people due to false statements, defamation law contains two primary components: libel and slander.
What Is Libel?
When a defamatory statement is published, it’s called libel. Before the internet existed, libel was fairly rare because getting something published (and widely circulated) meant a newspaper, magazine, or some other form of physically printed media. In most cases, a publication’s editors would spot potentially libelous material long before it went into print, and correct or remove the offending statement.
With the rise of the internet however, almost anyone can publish anything they want to say, anywhere and anytime. Blogs, social media, and online video have vastly expanded the potential for libelous statements to make it into the public sphere and cause harm to individuals or groups of people overnight.
One of the most famous recent cases of libel was against Rolling Stone magazine for publishing a story about students at the University of Virginia being involved in a gang rape. The story turned out to be false, and several of the students sued the magazine for defamation.
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What Is Slander?
Slander is a spoken defamatory statement. Those statements can be made anywhere and to anyone, provided that it’s also heard by a third party (someone other than the person making the statement, and the person who is the subject of the statement).
Imagine a business owner and one of their clients are out having lunch. While eating, a representative from a competing business comes to their table and accuses the business owner of fraudulent activity, which causes the client to fire the business owner.
If the business owner can prove they are not involved in the activity they were accused of, they could sue the competing company for slander.
While the laws regarding defamation vary a bit from state to state, there are generally three core components needed to prove defamation has occurred. The offending statement must be:
Published: From a legal perspective, “published” means that a third party saw or heard the statement. It does not mean the statement must appear in a book, newspaper, magazine, or other physically printed media.
False: If the statement is not false, it is not considered damaging. The statement may be mean, embarrassing, and/or offensive, but if it’s not false, it is not against the law. Opinions are almost always exempted from defamation, because they can’t be proved to be objectively false.
Injurious: There must be an injury of some kind. Most commonly this means losing work, clients, or money due to the defamatory statement.
Taking Your Case To Court
To take a defamation case to court, you’ll need an experienced civil litigation attorney. A civil lawsuit is a very serious undertaking, and cases often take many months, sometimes many years, before they are resolved.
If you believe you are the victim of defamation, contact an attorney to discuss your case.