Let’s say an article has been published in the local newspaper that casts a business and its owner in a very bad light. As a result, the business is losing money every day and has received hundreds of angry Facebook and Yelp reviews. People have even vandalized the owner’s home. The business’ reputation may be permanently damaged, so the owner plans to sue the newspaper for libel.
Now, you may be asking yourself, “What is libel? Is it the same as slander? What about defamation?” The answer is… sort of.
The words “libel” and “slander” are tossed around quite often these days. Celebrities are constantly threatening these lawsuits, and just recently, presidential candidate Donald Trump threatened to sue the New York Times for libel after it published a certain article about his past (we’re all tired of hearing about the election, I know).
So, what exactly do libel and slander mean? As communications professionals, we may not be experts on the law, but it’s important to at least somewhat understand what these words mean because they do play a role in our industry – especially in public relations – at times.
Defamation: The act of making untrue statements about another which damages his or her reputation. Libel and slander are both types of defamation. We’ll get into that in a minute.
In order to win a defamation case, the plaintiff must prove the following (although laws can vary by state):
- Someone made a statement that was published or spoken.
- The statement was false.
- The statement caused you harm.
If you are a celebrity or public figure, including officeholders and candidates, you must also prove that the defamatory statement was made with malicious intent – or “actual malice” as defined by the Supreme Court in a famous 1964 decision. How do you prove that someone knowingly published a false statement with intent to harm you? Exactly… it’s not easy.
Libel (i.e., written or broadcasted defamation): To publish in print or digital (including photos), or broadcast through radio, television or film, an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation.
For example, David Beckham filed a libel lawsuit against InTouch magazine for publishing an article claiming he had an affair. He could not, however, prove malicious intent and his $25 million case was rejected.
Slander (i.e., verbal defamation): Oral defamation, in which someone tells one or more persons an untruth about another, which will harm the reputation of the person defamed.
For example, an anesthesiologist filed and won a slander lawsuit against a surgeon who made false statements about his ability to practice medicine, causing him to lose patients and referrals.
Clearly, there is a fine line between freedom of speech and defamation, and the law is complicated. But the most important thing to remember is that you should always do your due diligence to ensure the information you say and publish is true. Further, you cannot win a defamation lawsuit if the statement was true.
So, the next time you see a D-list celebrity tweet that they are going to sue TMZ for slander, you’ll know that it’s libel, not slander, and they are a public figure, which means they probably won’t win.
Shout out to my communication law professor at the University of Oregon (Go Ducks!) for teaching me this four years ago and I still remember it.