Defamation, Libel and Slander

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Image courtesy of [Frank Renlie] / Getty Images.

The terms libel and slander mean a false statement made by one person about another. In libel, the statement is made in writing. In slander, the statement is made verbally.

Libel and slander are types of defamation, meaning a statement that damages the reputation of a person or organization. To qualify as libel or slander, the false statement must be hurtful and cause harm to the other party.

To prove defamation, a person must show all of the following:

  • The statement about him or her was false.
  • The statement injured him or her in some manner.
  • The statement was communicated to a third person.
  • The statement was not privileged (confidential). An example of a privileged statement is testimony given by a witness during a trial.

Example

Mary writes a popular blog about events in her community. Her blog has thousands of followers. Mary publishes a blog post stating the Bill embezzled money from a previous employer and then covered up the crime. Mary's statement is false. Nevertheless, Bill is fired from his job at a bank due to the negative publicity. Bill sues Mary for defamation. To prove his case, Bill shows that:

  • Mary's statement about him is false.
  • Mary's false statement injured him by causing him to lose his job.
  • Mary's false statement was communicated to numerous other people (Mary's readers); and
  • Mary's statement was not privileged.

Bill wins his suit against Mary, who is forced to pay him $20,000 in compensatory damages.

Libel and Slander

Libel is defamation expressed in writing. An act of libel may be committed through any visible means including print (newspapers, magazines), pictures, sculptures, and films. Slander is defamation through spoken words.

Words communicated verbally through modern media can reach a wide audience.

Thus, in some states defamation committed via words spoken over radio, television or the Internet may be considered libel rather than slander. Slander may be interpreted as verbal defamation communicated to a small number of people. When a particular act of defamation could conceivably fit either category, a court will typically decide whether it constitutes libel or slander.

Libel and slander are torts. A tort is a civil wrong, an infringement of a person's civil rights. Negligence is also a tort. Yet, negligence is an unintentional tort while libel and slander are intentional torts. Intentional torts are intentional acts that violate a person's civil rights.

Some intentional torts are also crimes. Examples are battery and assault. Libel may also be a crime. A number of states have enacted criminal libel laws to discourage people from using the Internet to defame others. 

Defenses

Someone who commits a tort may be sued if his or her actions cause injury to another party. A person who has been libeled or slandered may seek damages from the perpetrator by filing a lawsuit against him or her. The perpetrator may successfully defend himself by proving any of the following:

  • The statement was true.
  • The statement was made with the other party's permission.
  • The statement was privileged.
  • The statement was communicated accidentally.

For example, Mary could defend herself against Bill's lawsuit by showing that Bill was prosecuted by his former employer and found guilty of embezzlement.

Public Figures

Public officials, celebrities and other public figures have fewer protections against defamation than the average private person. A public figure has chosen to put himself in the public eye. To prove libel or slander, he or she must show that the perpetrator acted with malice. This means that the perpetrator knew the statement was false or showed reckless disregard as to whether it was true or false.

Opinion Versus Defamation

Negative opinions don't constitute defamation. Opinions are not facts that can be proven to be true or false.

In the previous example, suppose that Mary publishes a blog post stating that Bill is a loud, obnoxious bully. Bill may find Mary's statement insulting. Nevertheless, her comments are her opinion and are not grounds for a defamation suit.

Insurance Coverage

Claims against you or your firm for libel or slander may be covered by your general liability policy under Personal and Advertising Injury Coverage. For the claim to be covered, all of the following conditions must be satisfied:

  • The libel or slander must have been committed in the coverage territory and during your policy period;
  • The offense must have arisen out of your business operations;
  • The act must have been committed by you or another insured; and
  • The statement must be in the form of an oral or written publication. The statement must slander or libel someone, or disparage someone's goods, products or services.