Libel & Slander Defamation: Understanding Libel and Slander

  1. When false or injurious words are printed or spoken that may damage your reputation, you may have a remedy against the person writing or speaking those words. The term "defamation" is used to describe the results of what happens when someone commits is injured due to a written or spoken lie. This article will help you understand the requirements to make a case for defamation, also referred to as "libel" or "slander."

    What is defamation, libel and slander?

    In general, the offense of defamation is defined as a damaging lie or untruth shared by one person with another person about a third party. For example, if A shares with B that C is a thief when C is not a thief, C has been "defamed" by A. When the lie or untruth is written or typed, the defamation is called "libel." When spoken or oral, it is called "slander."

    Defamation frequently concerns the gossip and conflicts between neighbors, members of communities and the interest in the lives of famous people. Many people believe that such a case might require a great deal of publicity like the newspaper or the radio, but this is not true. All that is needed to make a case for defamation is to satisfy the requirements.

    General elements of defamation, slander and libel

    • A false and defamatory statement of fact concerning another person
    • A "publication" of that statement to a third party (someone other than the defamed person)
    • That is understood to be (i) referring to the plaintiff/defamed person; and (ii) tends to harm the reputation of the plaintiff/defamed person and cause damages
    • If the plaintiff/defamed person is a public figure (famous), the fault of the publisher must be "actual malice" (an intent to harm the plaintiff)
    Under the law, the word "publication" means "shared with a third party" and not printed. A verbal conversation sharing a lie about another person or a radio broadcast containing the lie can both constitute "publication" under law to make a defamation case. While these are the general elements of defamation actions, your state may have enacted specific statutes that deal with making and defending a case for libel and slander

    Damages and "Per Se" Injury

    In order to make a successful case for libel or slander, the defamatory words must have directly affected someone’s reputation to the point that they are exposed to hatred, contempt or pecuniary or monetary loss. Simply stating a lie that is not damaging is not actionable, for example, if A told B that C was wearing a blue shirt when C's shirt was actually green. If there was no damage suffered by C, no defamation case for slander could be made.

    Despite the need to prove damages to make a defamation case, many jurisdictions also recognize "per se" defamation where, on its face, it's clear that damage has been caused.
    • allegations that an unmarried person is "unchaste" or promiscuous
    • allegations that a person is infected with a sexually transmitted disease
    • allegations that a person has committed a crime of moral turpitude (serious crime)
    • damaging statements concerning a person's professional character or standing

    Is it practical to file a lawsuit for defamation?

    Even though you have been wronged, it may not always be a good idea to pursue a defamation action. In many instances, the effort in time and money is greater than the reward. Some issues to consider before bringing an action for libel and slander include:
    • Proof: Proving your case may be very difficult, especially slander which will require witness testimony - you not only have to prove the publication of the false statement but also a monetary figure that represents your damages.
    • Damages/Awards: Awards for damages are typically small in defamation cases. Attorneys typically will not take defamation cases on a contingency case for this reason and you may have to fund your own lawsuit. In general, the only defamation cases that are prosecuted are those where it's clear that a significant amount of damages have occurred and can be proven in a court of law.
    • Publicity: Filing a case may bring attention of the public to the lie and cause further damage to your reputation. For example, if a news show picks up the case, it could expose your life to the general public.
    • Defenses: It is important to evaluate the strength of a libel or slander case before proceeding. This includes evaluating the defenses to a libel or slander claim that a defendant may have that might either dismiss a defamation case or minimize damages to such a reduced amount that a case might not be worth filing.
    Accident & Injury Law:
    Libel & Slander

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    Michael Wechsler

    Michael Wechsler
    Michael M. Wechsler is an experienced attorney, founder of, A. Research Scholar at Columbia Business School and of-counsel to Kaplan, Williams & Graffeo, LLC. He was also an SVP and chief Internet strategist at and legal consultant at Kroll Ontrack, a leading service e-discovery and computer forensics service provider.


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