Frequently Asked Questions

What is “defamation”?

Defamation is a form of publication which tends to cause one to lose the esteem of the community is defamation.  This is injury to reputation.  A person is liable for the defamation of another.

 

What is “slander”?

Slander is a form of defamation that consists of making false oral statements about a person which would damage that person’s reputation.  If I spread a rumor that my neighbor has been in jail and this is not true, I could be held liable for slander. 

 

What is “libel”?

Defamation which occurs by written statements is known as libel.  Libel may also result from a picture or visual representa­tion. 

 

Can I sue someone who says or writes something defamatory about me?

In order to prove defamation, the plaintiff must prove:

  • that a statement was made about the plaintiff’s reputation, honesty or integrity that is not true;
  • publication to a third party (i.e., another person hears or reads the statement); and
  • the plaintiff suffers damages as a result of the statement.

 

Can libel suits be brought by a public figure?

Public figures have a more difficult time proving defamation. Politicians or celebrities are understood to take some risk in being before the public eye and many of them profit by their public persona. A celebrity must prove that the party defaming them knew the statements were false, made them with actual malice, or was negligent in saying or writing them. Proving these elements can be an uphill battle. However, an outrageously inaccurate statement that’s harmful to one’s career can be grounds for a successful defamation suit, even if the subject is famous. For example, some celebrities have won suits against tabloids for false statements regarding their ability to work, such as an inaccurate statement that the star had a drinking problem.

 

Don’t I have a right to express my opinion without fear of being sued for libel or slander?

Yes, so long as your statement of opinion is just an opinion, and does not contain specific facts that can be proved untrue. For example, “The waiters and waitresses at Acme Restaurant are too slow and the food is too spicy.” This is a statement of opinion. “I got food poisoning at Acme Restaurant” is potentially a defamatory statement if, in fact, the restaurant can prove that you never contracted food poison.

 

I was fired from my last job. I found out that my previous boss is giving me nasty references. What can I do?

Your former employer does not have carte blanche to say just anything about you. But a former supervisor can give candid assessments of your job performance, if the information provided is accurate and can be backed up. Unless the reference is slanderous (false and mean-spirited), a mere bad reference is not actionable. Suing or threatening legal action can make a bad situation worse. The supervisor may say, “I fired this person, he used me for a reference, then sued me for telling the truth.”

Can I sue for defamatory statements made by a witness under oath in court?

Some statements, while libelous or slanderous, are absolutely privileged in the sense that the statements can be made without fear of a lawsuit for slander.  The best example is a statement made in a court of law.  An untrue statement made by a witness about a person in court which damages that person’s reputation will generally not cause liability to the witness as far as slander is concerned.  However, if the statement is untrue, and the person knows the statement is untrue, the crime of perjury may have been committed.

 

I recently reviewed my personnel work files and was horrified to read that some of the statements written by my supervisor were flat out wrong. Do I have grounds for a defamation suit?

If the offending material reflected only opinions, it would not be libelous. A statement such as “this employee is not ready for promotion” reflects the supervisor’s opinion. But if the material reflected facts, and the facts are wrong, the employer may be liable for defamation. For example, if your personnel file contains a false statement that you are dishonest and not to be trusted with the keys to the cash register, the employer could be held liable for defamation.

 

Are news reporters and their statements protected against libel and/or slander claims?

The media enjoys a qualified privilege for stories that turn out to be false as long as the information was released without malice (i.e., without intent to harm) and a retraction or correction is made when the matter is brought to the attention of the publishing party.


Inside Frequently Asked Questions