Defamation of character occurs when someone makes a false statement against you, which they publish or state as fact, causing harm to your personal and professional reputation and other damages, such as emotional distress and financial loss.
According to the First Amendment, everyone has the right to free speech. However, defamation laws protect people from suffering harm to their reputations, careers, finances, and health from false statements made by other people.
Unfortunately, defamation of character can be challenging to define, prove, and prosecute. In this article, you will learn about the definition of defamation, its two primary types, how to prove it, and other things you need to know when filing a defamation lawsuit.
What Are The Two Types of Defamatory Statements?
Defamation is the umbrella term for “libel” and “slander.” Libel is written defamation, expressed by print, pictures, signs, effigies, writing, or any communication that manifests through physical objects and injures a person’s reputation.
Slander, on the other hand, is spoken defamation. It occurs when a person makes a false statement against another through oral communication with the intent to cause harm.
What is a False Statement?
Concerning defamation laws, a false statement is an untrue or incorrect statement that the maker expresses with the intent to deceive or mislead others.
As long as a defendant in a defamation suit can prove that what they said was true, the court cannot punish them for speaking the truth.
What is Protected Opinion?
Everyone has the right to their opinion, and the First Amendment generally protects statements of opinion. For instance, saying, “I think Jane Doe has a drug addiction,” may be a protected opinion. Saying “Jane Doe has a drug addiction” is expressed as factual and may be defamatory if proven false.
However, it is not enough to start harmful statements with “I think” or “In my opinion” for them not to be considered defamatory.
According to the US Supreme Court, an opinion merits protection from the First Amendment if:
- It is a matter of public concern.
- It is expressed in a way that makes it difficult to prove whether it is true or not.
- It cannot be reasonably interpreted as a factual statement about an individual.
Matters of Public Interest
When you make statements about a matter of public interest, such as corruption allegations against a public official, your actions may not be considered defamatory.
For instance, if you tell people that you think a local politician committed a crime when the allegations are all over the news, it will probably be considered a protected opinion. Furthermore, it is a matter of public concern and falls under the protection of free speech.
What is a Defamation Lawsuit?
Defamation of character is only punishable as a civil wrong. A defamation lawsuit is a legal action against a person that makes libelous or slanderous statements against another and is conducted in civil court.
Elements of a Defamation Lawsuit
States follow various defamation rules, but, in general, plaintiffs must prove the following to file a defamation claim or lawsuit:
- The defendant made a statement;
- The statement was published or spoken;
- The statement caused injury;
- The statement was false, and;
- The statement did not fall into a privileged category
The following are the definitions of these elements:
- Statement: The statement must be written (libel) or spoken (slander). Written statements are generally more harmful because people often forget spoken words more quickly. These statements are especially damaging if they involve public figures with significant reputations to uphold. Moreover, some comments are presumed to be defamatory, such as accusations of sexual misconduct, criminal activity, or having a sexually transmitted disease.
- Publication: A third party must have seen, heard, or read the defamatory statement to be considered “published.” A published comment does not have to be printed; it can be written on a wall, heard on the radio, or posted on social media.
- Injury: To have a libel or slander lawsuit, you must prove that the statement caused injury. “Injury” can mean a damaged reputation, lost work, emotional distress, and other potential damages.
- Falsity: You must prove that the statement against you was false to sue for defamation. People are free to speak about the truth, meaning you cannot hold someone accountable for saying something factual.
- Unprivileged: Some defendants have absolute privileges or “immunities” based on their position or status. This absolute defense typically applies to specific circumstances, such as publications between spouses, judicial proceedings, and publications required by law. In some cases, people that have absolute privileges can lie.
What to Do If Someone Makes a Defamatory Statement Against You
The first thing you need to do is capture the details of the defamatory statement made against you, including:
- What: The exact words of the statement
- When: The time the defendant communicated the statement
- How: The way the defendant communicated the statement, e.g., orally or through print
- Where: The specific place the defendant communicated the statement
- Whom: The person to whom the defendant communicated the statement
This process is more challenging regarding slander since oral statements are difficult or sometimes impossible to prove. You need the cooperation of the person to whom the defendant made the statements so that you can obtain the information you need for a defamation claim.
On the other hand, evidence for libelous statements is typically easier to collect since defendants publish them.
Common examples of publication include posting online, publishing in a newspaper or magazine, and broadcasting on the radio. You can use screenshots, recordings, pictures, printouts, or photocopies to gather evidence of the defamatory messages made against you.
Contact a defamation lawyer to determine if you have a case. You have the right to sue for defamation if you can prove that the defamatory statements against you are objectively false.
Proving Actual Malice
The Supreme Court ruled that freedom of speech limits public officials’ ability to sue for defamation. Hence, the burden of proof is higher for people in the public eye.
In addition to the burden of proof private individuals have, public officials and figures must prove that a defendant made a defamatory statement with actual malice. In other words, the defendant must have made the statement knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.
This rule exists because the law encourages people to speak freely. Celebrities and politicians can expect more public scrutiny than the average person, and they would have to prove actual malice to sue for character defamation.
The line between defamatory speech and opinion is often blurry in Internet defamation. This area of defamation law is continuously evolving.
Currently, courts treat online defamation the same way as traditional forms. You can take legal action against someone who publishes defamatory material against you online, such as a disparaging blog post, Twitter update, or YouTube video.
Parents of children who are victims of school bullying on the Internet can also file lawsuits on behalf of their children.
However, you cannot file a defamation case against an Internet platform like Facebook, Twitter, or Yelp. The Communications Decency Act protects these social media platforms from libel suits, meaning the law does not recognize them as publishers of content posted by their users.
Damages in Defamation of Character Lawsuits
Filing a defamation of character lawsuit could help you recover financial compensation for the following losses:
These damages compensate a victim for financial losses caused by defamation of character. Courts can translate actual damages into specific dollar amounts and may include:
- Lost or Missed Wages: Compensation for missing work or losing your job and benefits.
- Decreased Earning Capacity: Compensation for reduced income due to demotion or losing your job and taking a lower-paying one.
- Lost Business Prospects: Monetary recovery for lost business deals and transactions and reduced clientele.
Calculating the average settlement for defamation suits is difficult since no two cases are identical.
A legal professional can calculate the value of your damages, usually by adding the total monetary value you’ve lost starting when the defendant made the offending statement against you. The value of your settlement may also depend on how much you can prove financial injury.
If you require treatment for the mental anguish the defamatory messages have caused, you could also sue the defendant for medical bills.
Lost wages and business are not the only consequences of defamation of character. Under defamation law, you may also be entitled to compensation for non-monetary harm, including:
- Mental anguish
- Emotional distress
- Public disgrace
- Pain and suffering
- Reduced family and social ties
- Loss of enjoyment in life
- Mental health problems (anxiety, depression, PTSD)
A judge or jury decides the value of general damages in a defamation case. Hence, you need a skilled attorney to help you maximize compensation for your non-monetary losses.
A plaintiff might receive punitive damages if the defendant’s behavior was egregious or malicious. These damages aim to punish a defendant’s outrageous conduct and deter them from repeating their actions in the future rather than compensate the victim for their losses.
Defenses to Defamation Cases
When suing someone for defamation of character, it helps to know the typical defenses to defamation lawsuits, so you know what to expect from the opposing party.
A defendant may use the following defenses in a defamation claim or lawsuit:
- The Truth: A statement must be false to be considered defamatory. The truth is the absolute defense against a defamation lawsuit.
- Opinion: Only statements of fact can be considered defamatory, meaning opinions may not constitute defamation of character. However, differentiating statements of fact and opinion is often challenging. You need a skilled lawyer to prove that the statements against you were presented as facts instead of opinions.
- Absolute Privileges: Some people have protection from defamation action in certain circumstances, e.g., when a witness is testifying at trial.
- Qualified Privileges: Some statements fall under “qualified privilege,” which recognizes that people have some right to make false statements in some cases. For instance, fair criticism of media and warnings of potential danger are subject to qualified statements. However, if the speaker expressed the statement with actual malice, they might no longer be entitled to qualified privilege.
- Retraction: A retraction is a formal and public withdrawal of a false statement. You can still sue the speaker for defamation of character, but the retraction may lessen the harm caused by the statement and reduce claimable damages.
Legal Consequences For Defamation
When an individual is found guilty of defamation of character, the court may punish them with a fine or imprisonment. Fines vary in different states, and incarceration is uncommon for defamation cases.
However, some states have criminal penalties for defamation of character, and a defendant can get arrested for libel or slander on top of facing a civil case.
In a libel lawsuit, the court may issue an order for the defendant to remove the defamatory statement from where they published it and pay for the victim’s damages. The defendant may also receive a court order to stop posting libelous material in the future.
The Role of a Defamation Lawyer
Defamation cases are often complex. Proving defamation is a significant obstacle in and of itself, especially for a public figure that must provide “clear and convincing” evidence of defamation.
On top of that, you will have to show the extent of your damages and fight the other party’s defenses while handling the effects of the defamation on your professional and private life.
A defamation lawyer will lessen these burdens by taking over your case. They can help you maximize your compensation and restore your reputation by:
- Helping you understand defamation law and determine if you have a viable case
- Gathering evidence to prove that you are a victim of defamation
- Developing a strategy to hold the defendant accountable for their words
- Determining the extent of your actual and general damages
- Seeking an early settlement from the defendant, if possible
- Filing a defamation case on your behalf in civil court, if necessary
- Serving as your legal representation in court
- Requesting a court order to remove published libelous material
Defamation law aims to balance competing interests. A person should not be able to ruin someone else’s life by spreading lies. On the other hand, people should have the freedom of speech without fear of getting sued over every disagreement, criticism, or mistake.
However, there is no doubt that some people abuse their freedom of speech to cause harm to others. If you are a victim of defamatory statements made by someone else, you have the right to take legal action against them.
Find an experienced personal injury attorney to handle your defamation case, ideally one that has dealt with a situation like yours.