No one likes to be bad-mouthed, but it happens, and sometimes it requires legal action.
It’s called defamation when someone’s untrue words (spoke or written) cause harm to another person’s reputation or livelihood. There are two main kinds of defamation: libel and slander. These two legal terms are often confused for the other, especially in our media-driven age.
Let’s start off by defining libel and slander.
Libel is a written or published statement that makes defamatory claims about a person.
Libel comes from the Latin “libellus,” or “little book.” The word originated with the invention of the printing press (defamatory pamphlets were called “libelli famosi”) and in the 17th century libel officially became a legal term for a written insult.
The most common places to make/find potentially libelous statements in today’s world:
- online comments on websites (e.g., magazine, newspapers)
- blog posts (and blog comments)
- online chat rooms
In the past, letters written to newspaper editors could contain potentially libelous comments, but that has become less commonplace.
For example, let’s say you wrote a comment on a blog post claiming that the author had a criminal record. If that’s false, it’s a defamatory statement. That’s why truth is an absolute a defense when it comes to libel and slander—the First Amendment protects true statements to a much greater degree than false statements.
Slander, on the other hand, refers to spoken words. These comments can be made anywhere to anyone. Slander actually derives form the Latin word “scandalum” and I’m sure you could take a wild guess and be correct thinking it means “scandal.”
If you tell a co worker, for example, something false about “Susie,” “Susie” could sue you for defamation if she was able to prove that her reputation was damaged as a result of your statement.
These types of cases can be hard to prove, and because plaintiffs bear the burden of proof, often defendants have the advantage. As stated earlier, truth is a complete defense but that’s not the only thing a plaintiff needs to prove to win.
In a defamation case (libel or slander) a person must prove:
- a false and defamatory statement by defendant concerning the plaintiff;
- an unprivileged publication to a third person;
- fault, amounting to at least negligence; and
- actual or presumed damages.
Can’t everyone just get along? Apparently not, and that’s one reason why lawyers are around, to help keep the peace and make things right for people.
Zachariah B. Parry is an attorney and founding partner at the law firm Parry & Pfau and is an adjunct professor who teaches torts, contracts, and Nevada practice and procedure for UNLV’s paralegal program. He can be reached at 702-912-4451 or firstname.lastname@example.org.