When to Sue for Defamation, Slander, and Libel

Written by J. Hirby and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Defamation of character is an offense for which a complainant may be eligible to bring another party to civil court. There are two types of defamation: spoken defamation, or slander, and written defamation, or libel. The balance that makes defamation law tricky is that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives people the right of free speech. On the other hand, people should not be able to ruin the lives of others by disseminating lies to force a business to shut down or compel the breakdown of a family. Laws regarding when to sue for defamation vary from state to state, but generally speaking, four criteria must be met for a slander or libel suit to stand a chance of success.

The defamation, whether written or spoken, must be:

  • 1) Demonstrably and objectively false
  • 2) Seen or heard by a public third party
  • 3) Quantifiably injurious
  • 4) Unprivileged by law

Defamation Must Be Objectively False

It is not against the law to say mean things about somebody if they are either true or if they are entirely subjective. For instance, if a restaurant critic says that the food “was the worst I’ve had in a long time,” the statement, while mean, is vague and subjective enough to avoid a lawsuit. Similarly, environmental activists who make the public aware of corporate practices that harm the earth can’t be sued for defamation as long as they report on the facts.

Defamation Must Be Published

In order to prove injury, you have to prove that other people saw it, heard it, read it and had their minds changed because of the slanderous or libelous statements. Courts generally consider libel to be more serious than slander because writing lasts longer, though major television broadcasts often carry the same weight as major print or web publications because more people viewed them.

Defamation Must Cause Financial Injury

In order to determine the damages from a slander or libel suit, there must be quantifiable damages. Defamation of character damages a person’s or company’s reputation, and it must be proven that the damage to reputation correlated with a loss of money, property, relationship or was subject to harassment that led to any of the above losses.

Defamation Must Not Be Protected Speech

Examples of speech that is privileged and protected specifically by the U.S. Constitution from defamation laws include witness testimony in court and lawmaker statements in legislative chambers or official materials.

As long as the defamatory statements are published, false, injurious and unprivileged, you may have a case to file a defamation lawsuit. Of course, it is always advised to consult with a lawyer before taking any steps forward in your legal action.

When to Sue for Defamation as a Public Official

It is challenging enough for the average person to win a defamation case, but it is even harder for a public official to prove slander or libel, whether the person is a government employee, a high profile actor, or any other form of celebrity. This is because as a public official, you have to meet a fifth criterion – actual malice. Actual malice in the context of defamation means a person knew what they said was not true and defamed the public official with the intention of harming his or her reputation. Proving that the individual completely disregarded the truth and purposefully intended on damaging the other person’s reputation can be difficult, however.

Celebrity Case of Defamation

While it may be difficult, there are a number of high-profile people who have won cases of defamation. For instance, Katie Holmes filed a libel lawsuit against The Star gossip magazine for publishing that she was a drug addict in the article titled “Addiction Nightmare. Katie Drug Shocker!” However, inside the article, the publication did not divulge any information related to a drug addiction, but with such a defamatory headline, Holmes had a case on her side. The $50 million lawsuit ended with a printed apology and a donation to a charity of Holmes’ choice.

Not every case is as straightforward as Holmes’ was. Here’s more on how to prove a defamation of character claim.

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