You've heard the adage, "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words will never hurt me." While any elementary school student will attest that this is simply not true, many times adults forget that they can find themselves on the wrong end of a lawsuit if they use their words in ways that hurt others. When does expressing yourself cross the line from sharing your feelings to actual libel or slander? Read on to find out.
Types of Defamation: Libel vs. Slander
In a nutshell, slander is spoken and libel is written. When it comes to statements on the Internet, there is not a clear-cut line between the two types of defamation. A judge is usually the one who will decide which type of defamation the plaintiff is suing for when there is a question, but a good rule of thumb to keep in mind is that if the potentially defamatory statements were able to be viewed by many people, as opposed to just a few, the libel charge might be more likely.
In a defamation of character lawsuit, someone suing for slander might be able to recover additional compensation if what was said negatively impacted (or could negatively impact) his or her personal or professional life. For example, spreading a rumor that someone committed a crime, has a disease or cheats his or her customers out of money could cost the person being talked about money or a relationship.
With a libel charge, it's already assumed that what has been written or published has or could cost the plaintiff monetarily or personally, so these types of damages are typically included in the libel charge itself. This is because the written word has the greater potential to stick around and be accessed or read by many others.
Defending Against a Defamation Charge
If you have been accused of defaming someone's character, don't panic. There are two major defenses to a charge of libel or slander:
- You were telling the truth. If you have not lied, then you have not committed slander or libel. Communicating, in speech or in writing, that someone stole money from you, gave you a disease, cheated on his or her spouse, or is swindling customers is not defamation of character... if what you are saying is true. While the plaintiff in the case might be extremely unhappy that you brought these things to light, there's really nothing he or she can do about it. If you did lie, however, or you cannot prove that what you are saying is true, then you can be successfully sued for defamation of character.
- The plaintiff has privilege. What this means is that he or she is a celebrity or is running for public office. In these instances, the person being talked or written about needs to prove that the speaker or writer is acting with "actual malice." As long as the defendant can claim that he or she didn't know that the words spoken or written were untrue, or that no harm was meant, it's highly unlikely that the plaintiff will win the case. This defense, incidentally, is how supermarket tabloids are able to publish wild stories about celebrities without consequence.
Keeping Yourself Out of Court
Many people love gossip, but if you aren't careful, you could end up defending yourself against a charge of libel or slander. The first rule of thumb is to stick to the truth. As Sir Walter Scott pointed out, it's possible to find yourself in whole heap of trouble when you lie. Scott might not have been thinking about lawsuits, but in the 21st century, this is definitely a concern!
Secondly, remember that anything you put on the Internet is forever. In addition to worrying about your boss, your teacher and your family members finding out what you've put out there on the World Wide Web, it's important to consider that if you were to defame someone's character, you might be charged with libel. Post with caution.
Most people get through life without ever having to worry about being charged with slander or libel, but if you have lied about someone else, particularly if you had the intent to ruin their reputation, they could get a personal injury lawyer to represent them in court. Avoid this by being aware of what you are saying and writing where it can be heard or read by others.