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Defamation, slander, libel…what does it all mean?

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In today’s world, there is no shortage of people sharing their thoughts on every possible topic. And sometimes it seems like the words slander, libel and defamation get thrown around a lot – with very little understanding of what they actually mean.

As the oft-quoted Benjamin Franklin once said, “It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” And good ol’ Ben’s probably right: it’s not always easy to recover when statements or accusations are made that bring someone’s character into question.

So, what is the difference between libel and slander? And where does defamation come in?

Though sometimes the phrases are all used interchangeably, there are a few differences. The nuances can break down even further if someone uses the internet for research on the topic. There are plenty of sites offering advice – but what does someone presenting a “statement of fact” really mean in this era of trolls, fake news and deep fake videos?

But first, definitions

1. To slander someone involves making a false spoken statement that’s harmful to someone’s reputation.

For example: In 2004, actress Sharon Stone settled a lawsuit against a California plastic surgeon who had allegedly given quotes to several tabloids claiming to have performed a facelift on her.

2. Libel is when a published statement harmed the reputation of a person or organization.

For example: New York Times Co. v. Sullivan established that public officials had to be able to prove statements were "published with knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth", in order to protect First Amendment rights and public debate.

3. Defamation encompasses both slander and libel and is the action of damaging someone’s good name.

For example: Just a few years ago, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court ruled that blogging about matters of public concern would not place liability on the blogger unless proof of fault and actual damages could be established.

Then there’s defamation per se, where certain statements are so disparaging that damage is presumed and won’t even need to be proven in court – unless you’re in one of three states that doesn’t recognize it. Covered under this would be things like:

  • a criminal offense;
  • a loathsome disease;
  • matter incompatible with his business, trade, profession, or office; or
  • serious sexual misconduct.

Over time the use of slander and libel has fallen off in favor of defamation, though specific cases may still spell them out separately. If you’re still confused, don’t worry. A defamation attorney will be able to help you sort through the jargon.

Considering a civil action or a defamation lawsuit against someone making false statements or fighting defamation claims is not always an easy road. But how and why do speech and actions get pushed from free speech to the involvement of defamation of character lawyers for plaintiff claims and libel lawsuits?

The internet is dark and full of terrors

Leaving an online review that may or may not be considered a false statement is one of the easiest ways to run afoul of laws. Many people rely on sites like Yelp, Glassdoor® or Google for reviews about everything from restaurants to house painters to potential employers.

However, the abundance of opinion-based sites comes along with potential for defamatory statements to go viral. Some sites even have FAQ sections providing advice on how to avoid defamation claims or retaliation.

But it’s not just sites built on reviews where trouble can happen. Social media apps, books, blogs, online gaming communities…see where we’re going with this?

The trick is finding the line between what is clearly a personal opinion and what could be ambiguous enough to seem like a statement of fact. If something can be proven true or false, it’s not an opinion – but accusations of a crime or personal injury should not be taken lightly.

Sometimes though, opinions are valid and could be helpful to other consumers. Unfortunately, individuals don’t always have the means to fight when someone or some company files a complaint. That’s where anti-SLAPP statutes are helpful.

Designed to give defendants a way to avoid warrantless lawsuits and protect first amendment rights, SLAPP stands for “Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation”. As of this writing, 30 states and Washington, D.C. have anti-SLAPP protections in place.

Though the laws vary greatly across the country, the general premise is the same: to “discourage the filing of SLAPP suits and prevent them from imposing significant litigation costs and chilling protected speech.”

Going to court is not cheap

Generally, defendants and plaintiffs are bound by the state laws where the defamation took place – even if it’s not the one where you live and work.

Depending on the state, suing for defamation requires the plaintiff to show that statements had been made in a false light and have proven actual malice. Sometimes, the elements of defamation mean that small claims court could produce a verdict for defamation law hearings and no jury is involved – but again, each state will be different.

If you’re facing an action for defamation claims – or looking to file a suit yourself – do your research and consider hiring an attorney. They’ll be able to help with documentation, filing and understanding the ins and outs of libel, slander and defamation law.

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