An Easy Guide to Understanding The Basics of Defamation Law

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Defamation law is an area of law that is closely related to the First Amendment right to freedom of speech.

Defamation generally consists of any false statement that injures a person or entity’s reputation, honor, or integrity. The law penalizes these false statements by providing compensation for the injured party. If you are thinking about publishing content online, it’s crucial to understand defamation law because it protects people from being unjustly attacked in public forums.

Here’s an easy guide to defamation law.

What is Defamation of Character?

Defamation of character is defined as making an untrue statement about someone which damages their reputation or holds them in a negative light. The false information must be about a fact, not an opinion or judgment. Written defamation is called libel, while spoken defamation is called slander. 

It is important to note that the statement does not have to be factual at all. For example, even if it is offensive or damaging, a statement of opinion may not violate. However, some words are so outrageous and false that they give the defendant no choice but to prove them wrong. Defamation law tries to balance the ability to speak freely and protect a person’s reputation. In most cases, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant’s false statement has harmed them.

Defamation vs. Slander And Libel: What’s The Difference?

There are many differences between slander, libel, and defamation of character. Slander generally has to do with false verbal statements, while libel per quod generally relates to written untrue statements. Libel can also be defined as any time incorrect information is publicly displayed in a way meant to damage the person’s reputation potentially. Libel can be on television, billboards, or even written on toilet walls.

Slander and libel are both types of defamation of character, but not all types of defamation are slander or libel – they can also be called “slander per see” if they are spoken or “libel per see” if they are written. However, defamation is often associated with slander and libel because it does not matter how the statement was made – only that it was made.

Does Defamation Law Require The Plaintiff To Prove Emotional Distress?

Many people are falsely under the impression that if a person is deemed to have been defamed, they must prove that they have suffered damages or injury as a result. This is not true. While many states have laws that allow plaintiffs to recover money for actual economic losses, such as lost wages and business revenue, defamation law does not require someone to show this kind of damage.

Instead, defamation law allows plaintiffs to recover money for “per see” injuries. These injuries include:

  1. Loss of job and
  2. Damage to a person’s professional or personal reputation and
  3. Mental anguish and
  4. Damage to social or business relationships. 

The plaintiff does not have to prove that they lost their job or failed to gain promotion due to being defamed. In addition, they do not have to prove that they suffered mental anguish, nor do they show that their social relationships have been damaged.

What Does The Victim Need to Prove to Establish defamation?

To prove defamation of character, the plaintiff must show that:

  1. The defendant made a false and defamatory statement
  2. The statement was about or referred directly to the plaintiff, and;
  3. The defendant’s fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence. 

The first two elements are relatively easy for plaintiffs to establish. They only require evidentiary support, such as an admission by the defendant or copies of publications containing defamatory statements. The third element is where much of the confusion lies because it requires them to prove how much the defendant was at fault for making and publishing those false statements.  

Types Of Damages In A Defamation

The final step in proving defamation is to show how the plaintiff has suffered harm as a result. There are two types of damages in most defamation cases:

  1. Compensatory Damages, and;
  2. Punitive Damages.  

Compensatory damages are meant to compensate people for their actual losses, where punitive damages are intended to punish defendants who acted with reckless disregard or malice toward their victims. The level of proof required for compensatory and punitive damages differs state by state but is generally more complex than proving liability for making false statements (libel).

To be successful in a defamation lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant made a statement about them that harmed their reputation or injured their social status. Plaintiffs do not have to show economic damages to win a defamation case in many states, though they may have to prove actual harm if their state requires it. Even if the defendant makes a true statement, they can still be held liable for defamation so long as the plaintiff can prove that malice was behind their actions.

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