Everyone has heard of the terms: defamation, slander and libel. But not all understand the meanings of the words or the elements necessary to bring a successful lawsuit involving those legal concepts.
Defamation, quite simply, is any statement that harms someone’s reputation. If the statement is written, it is called “libel.” If the statement is spoken, it is called “slander.”
Defamation law can be tricky to understand. The law aims to strike a balance between free speech (the distribution of information, ideas and opinions) and protecting individuals from having falsehoods told about them.
While the law of defamation varies from state to state, there are many generally accepted rules. In order to have a good claim of defamation, the following elements need to be proven:
1. The statement was published
2. The statement was false
3. The statement was injurious
4. The statement was unprivileged
A “statement” can be written, spoken or pictured. Written and pictured statements are more harmful than spoken statements as they tend to have a longer shelf life.
A statement is “published” when a third party hears or sees the statement. This means that someone other than the person making the statement or the person who the statement is about sees or hears the statement. As long as a third party to whom the statement has been communicated can understand the meaning of the statement, most courts will find the statement has been published.
A statement must be “false” for it to be considered damaging. Here is where it gets tricky. If someone is expressing an opinion, it is generally not considered defamation, because it cannot be proven to be objectively untrue. If I were to say, “that is the ugliest woman I have ever seem in my life” it would not be defamatory because the statement could not be proven to be false.
A statement must be “injurious.” This is where many potential defamation cases fail. If someone suffers no damages, there is no viable claim to pursue. The whole point of defamation law is to compensate someone for injuries to their reputation. An injured party must show, for example, that because of the false statement, they lost work; suffered financial loss; were shunned by neighbors, friends, or family members. A person with a bad reputation to begin with most likely would not collect much in a defamation action.
A statement must be “unprivileged.” Under certain circumstances, even a provably false statement cannot be the basis for a defamation action. For instance, witnesses who testify falsely in court or at a deposition cannot be sued for defamation. They can, however, theoretically be prosecuted for perjury. The reason for this is a matter of public policy. Lawmakers believe that free speech is so important that witnesses should not be worried about being sued for defamation. In fact, lawmakers are not liable for statements made while in legislative session, even if they say or write something that might otherwise be considered defamatory.
Defamation law deals with a delicate balancing act. We all believe in free speech but also believe that a person’s reputation/livelihood should not be harmed due to lies. While many people say rude and disparaging things about others, many of those slaps in the face do not rise to the level of actionable defamation because either the statements are true (or just opinions) or no damages have been suffered.
If you feel you have been defamed, and have suffered damages (lost earnings, as well as pain and suffering, impairment to reputation and standing in the community, personal shame and humiliation) you should get a free consultation from a personal injury lawyer in your area.
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