Defamation Lawsuits: Basic Principles

Perhaps our most treasured right as Americans is the right of free speech. That we as individuals are able to express our opinions, and that the press is able to dig out, expose, and publish information that the public needs to know are essential rights to a functioning democracy. But words, whether spoken or printed, can have a powerful derogatory effect on others and can cause serious harm to a person whose good reputation has been damaged by the dissemination of false derogatory information. Wrongfully harming someone’s good reputation by speech or the written word is called “defamation.” Slander is spoken defamation; libel, generally considered more serious because it tends to stick around longer, is defamation in writing. So how do we balance the rights of a person to maintain his or her good reputation against the highly-valued right of freedom of speech and expression?

It is important to note that defamation by either slander or libel is not a crime; instead, defamation of either type is a tort, or civil wrong. If it can be proven that someone maliciously spread untrue information about another, and that the allegedly defamed person suffered damages as a result, that person may be able to recover monetary compensation in a civil court action.

What Needs to Be Proved

The plaintiff in a defamation law suit needs to prove not only that the derogatory statement was conveyed, but that:

  • It was conveyed and heard—or viewed or read—by one or more third parties. If it was just an ugly verbal exchange between two people, there is no case.
  • It must also be untrue. Anyone has the absolute right to make any true statement about anyone in any public forum. No matter how derogatory it may be, if it is true, there is no legal recourse. Opinions may be rendered freely, because an opinion cannot be proven false.
  • It must have injured the plaintiff, and the plaintiff’s damages must be proved: for example, loss of a job or friends, the breakup of a family, loss of business, and so forth. If the person complaining of defamation never had a good reputation to begin with, he will have a hard time proving that he lost anything. If you’ve got nothing, you’ve got nothing to lose, and thus no valid cause of action.
  • The statement must be “unprivileged.” There are certain privileged situations in which a person is protected from being sued, because protecting them is in the public interest.
  • These include:
  • Witnesses in a trial (although they could potentially be prosecuted criminally for lying under oath).
  • Legislators, who can’t be held liable for statements made as a part of the official legislative duties.
  • In the case of any public official who objects to criticism aimed at his performance in office, the statement was made with “actual malice.” This is because, going back to the colonial case of newspaper publisher John Peter Zenger, it has been deemed essential to the functioning of a democracy that we are free to criticize those who hold public office, without fear of reprisal.

We live in a time of unprecedented “defamation” of officials and members of the press by those at the highest level of government. However distasteful this may be, it is, for the most part, unlikely to result in legal action. (Similarly, movie stars and other celebrities who seek out the limelight should also expect criticism by some members of the public and will have to prove actual malice to win a defamation lawsuit.)

The Takeaway

While we should use our right of free speech vigorously and often, it is also important to remember that there are some limitations on free speech, designed to keep it from being used wrongly to cause deliberate harm to others. Just as freedom of speech does not make it okay to falsely shout “fire” in a crowded theater, it is not meant to be used as a weapon to harm another by spreading false information in a personal vendetta.