Defamation Laws Explained for the Slandered Client
Imagine this: the discovery process is already underway for your client’s case. Then a potential witness says something shocking (and, as it turns out, untrue) about your client during a deposition—and that claim is leaked to the popular press. Someone else makes another false claim against your client during a television interview. Your client is frantic about the damage to his good name.
Unfortunately, in some cases a bad deed doesn’t even need to be done to collapse a person’s public standing. Even a hint of improper behavior—a mere accusation—can cause a person’s reputation and character to be questioned. This is where the law of defamation comes into play.
The laws of defamation, also known as libel or slander laws, are put into place in order to address the harm malicious gossip or accusations inflicts on a person, business, corporation, or other entity. character and reputation. They basically state that no one should purposefully make and publish false statements that would injure the reputation of another; by doing do, a person may be held accountable for any injury.
It’s important to note that critical speech is not illegal and is often protected by the First Amendment. The laws do, on the other hand, state that malicious and untrue comments may allow the targets to be able to sue for damages.
Defamation laws cover any written (libel) or spoken (slander) statements that are presented and published in such a way that damages the target’s reputation or standing in the community. However, since there is a fine line between freedom of speech and malicious defamation, there are specific elements that a statement must display in order for the target to be able to pursue a lawsuit. These elements include publication, falsity, negligence and malicious intent, and damages (an injurious outcome).
Understanding the Law
In order to understand when a statement can be considered slanderous, you need to understand the meaning of the terminology and elements used in such cases.
- Publication. The term publication in defamation actions is broader than you may realize. A statement does not have to be formally distributed in print to be considered published; it merely needs to be seen, heard, or read by someone apart from the person making the statement and the subject of the statement. This means that if the statement is heard over the television, seen scrawled on someone’s door, or merely overheard in a conversation, it can be considered published in the context of the law.
- Falsity. In order for a statement to be considered slanderous, it must be verifiably false. Just because someone pointed out a disgraceful action that the plaintiff committed that consequently ruined her reputation doesn’t mean she can sue for defamation. A true statement, although potentially harmful, would not be considered defamatory. In addition, statements of personal opinion are not considered slanderous, as they are subjective and not claiming to be 100% true.
- Negligence and malicious intent. In order for a statement to be considered as defamation, it must have been made with the knowledge that it was false. A private citizen must show that the defendant knew (or should have known) the statement was false before giving it, but decided to give it anyway. The law differs for public figures and celebrities as they must be able to prove specific malicious intent in order to pursue a lawsuit, not just negligence. This means that they must prove that a statement was made with prior knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false, with the intent to harm the target’s reputation.
- Damages. In order to pursue a defamation lawsuit, a plaintiff must be able to prove that the statement’s interpretation of her character directly led to personal damages such as being fired, creating marital problems, or becoming a social pariah. Therefore, although she may not like what someone has said about her, if the consequences of a statement were merely a bruised ego, it isn’t enough to pursue a successful lawsuit.
Questioning the Law
There is a lot of “he said, she said” action in courtrooms, boardrooms, and meeting rooms that could potentially lead to defamation lawsuits. As a lawyer, what do you have to say about defamation law? Should it apply to ordinary conversations, or are people overstepping the law in trying to sue? Should there be more defamation cases or fewer?