At first you might think that this kind of speech should not receive first amendment protection; however, there are times when it is necessary report on important issues that will most likely harm someone's reputation. For instance, if a reporter uncovers wrong doing in a large public company, it is inevitable that someone's reputation will suffer.
Libel and slandar is anything that is written or said that defames a person. It includes those things with the potential of harming a person's reputation or holding them up to hatred, ridicule, shame and scorn. Slander has to do with oral defamation while libel covers things written and broadcasted. Most courts treat them exactly the same. Though each state has it's own libel and slander laws, generally libel concerns:
- Attacks upon moral turpitude
- Accusations of a loathsome disease
- Attacks upon competency
- Attacks upon honesty
- Attacks upon chastity (for women)
Here is the definition from my home state of Oklahoma.
State Law Example In Oklahoma
Libel is a false or malicious unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, or effigy or other fixed representation to the eye, which exposes any person to public hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy, or which tends to deprive him of public confidence, or to injure him in his occupation, or any malicious publication as aforesaid, designed to blacken or vilify the memory of one who is dead, and tending to scandalize his surviving relatives or friends (O.S. 12.25 §1441)In a strict sense, people are libeled every day; however, most states only allow false statements that are made about another to be prosecuted. Law Information.com has a short summary about libel.
What is libel per se?
A statement that falsely:
- Charges any person with crime, or with having been indicted, convicted, or punished for crime;
- Imputes in him the present existence of an infectious, contagious, or loathsome disease;
- Tends directly to injure him in respect to his office, profession, trade or business, either by imputing to him general disqualification in those respects that the office or other occupation peculiarly requires, or by imputing something with reference to his office, profession, trade, or business that has a natural tendency to lessen its profits;
- Imputes to him impotence or a want of chastity.
To prove that you have been libeled you must show:
Defenses Against Libel
- Publication: The communication must be published. This means that at least one other person must have seen or heard the defamatory message.
- Identification: You must be able to directly or indirectly identify the person by the remarks that were made.
- Damages: Show that the communication damages the reputation of a person. You must be able to offer specific proof for this claim.
- Defamatory meaning: There must must be defamatory material.
- Falsity. The statements in dispute must be false.
- Fault: You must be able to identify the one who made the defamatory remarks.
If you are accused of defaming someone, here are the defenses available to you.
- Truth: Be able to show that what you said was true. This is your ultimate defense. Many a lawsuit crumbles once the plaintiffs learn that truth is a defense.
- Issue of Public Concern: The person who brings a libel action will have a more difficult time of winning an award if the story you report about is one of important community concern. The courts don't want to limit a reporter's ability report on important information because of a fear of legal retribution. Of course this doesn't mean that the reporter can say anything they want, or make up stuff, it just means that they receive more leeway when the stories they report on have more vitality or necessity for the community.
Free Speech Exception
- Public Figure/Public Officials: It is more difficult to win a libel action against people who are elected public officials or who enjoy high visibility. The courts do not want to discourage reporting about these kinds of individuals since they have the ability to impact public life.
With the exceptions of matters of important public concern and public figures, you can be held responsible for any false statements you make about another that harms their reputation.For More Information
- Defamation, Libel and Slander ExpertLaw.com
- For an interesting and historical look at the relationship between Libel and defamation on the grounds of chastity see: Her Own Good Name: Two Centuries of Talk about Chastity by Lisa Pruitt from the University of California, Davis
- Pember, Don. Mass media law. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011.
- What is Libel? Media Law Resource Center