When it comes to one person’s right to freedom of speech and another’s right to protect their good name, it can be difficult to determine which personal remarks are suitable and which result in violation of defamation law.
On one hand, people are free to speak about their experiences in a truthful manner—without fear of a lawsuit if they say something mean, but true, about another person. However, people have a right to not have false statements made about them that damages their reputation.
“Defamation” is a catch-all term for any statement which harms one’s reputation. Written defamation is known as “liable,” while spoken defamation is considered “slander.”
Although defamation is not a criminal offense, it is a “tort” or a civil wrong. An individual who has been defamed can sue the person who did the defaming.
The following are the elements of a defamation lawsuit:
- Someone made a statement that was spoken, written, pictured, or even gestured. Since written statements are more permanent in nature compared to spoken statements, most courts consider libel more harmful than slander.
- The statement was published, meaning that a third party heard or saw the statement. “Published” doesn’t necessarily mean that the statement was printed in a book, magazine, or newspaper—it needs to be made public through television, radio, social media posts, speeches, or even gossip.
- The statement needs to be false, or else it is not considered damaging. A true statement, no matter how harmful, will not be looked upon as defamation. Furthermore, opinions are not considered false because they are subjective to the speaker.
- The statement must be shown to have caused injury to the subject of the statement. Injury means hurting the reputation of the subject of the statement.
- Lastly, the defamatory statement must be “unprivileged.” You are not able to file a lawsuit for defamation in certain circumstances when a statement is considered privileged, such as—for example—testifying falsely in court or at a deposition.
If you have been accused of defamation, or an individual has defamed you, you'll want to know more about the law and your rights. An experienced attorney can examine the specifics of your situation and the state law to determine the strength of your claim.