Libel and slander are both types of defamation. Defamation is the act of making negative statements that hurt another person’s reputation. Libel is written, published, or broadcast defamation, while slander refers to spoken defamatory statements. Both are illegal in the United States. Those who make defamatory statements may find themselves facing civil or criminal suits in state courts. In the United States, defamation suits are limited by First Amendment protections of free speech, but it’s still best to be careful.
Libel refers to published defamation. Defamatory statements made in newspapers, magazines, and blogs are considered libel. So are defamatory things said on TV or radio shows. Libel laws apply to both small- and large-scale publications. A small blog is held just as accountable for libel as a major city newspaper. In general, it’s easier to prove libel than slander, as the act of publication itself is considered injury to the other person.
Slander describes spoken defamatory statements. The term applies to in-person interactions, like standing inside a restaurant and shouting false accusations about its sanitary conditions. Slander is harder to prove. Most courts only consider something slander if it causes actual, proven damage to the third party. The restaurant scenario might not be considered slander if the diners keep eating and the restaurant doesn’t lose any money.
Characteristics of Defamation
A defamatory statement is something factually incorrect being presented as the truth. A statement like that becomes defamatory when it’s distributed to another party, whether through mass publishing or one-on-one interaction. Hurtful statements in materials intended for private use (like personal diaries) aren’t defamatory because the ideas aren’t being communicated to another person.
Exceptions and Limits
Truth is an absolute defense against defamation. A statement can’t be defamatory if it’s true. Just know that isn’t a license to spread around people’s embarrassing personal information. Some information may be protected by privacy laws (which restrict the public disclosure of private facts).
Opinions aren’t considered defamatory. It would be libel or slander to describe someone as a murderer if they weren’t convicted of murder. However, it’s not defamatory, slanderous, or libelous to call someone stupid as there’s no objective measure of stupidity. People can be convicted of murder, but no court can declare someone stupid.
Libelous or slanderous statements are specific. They identify an individual or group. Remember, defamation damages another party’s reputation. If a statement doesn’t indicate a specific target, no one’s reputation can suffer. Directly naming someone isn’t required for identification, however. For example, malicious statements about the biggest landowner in town can be defamatory without identifying the person by name.
Like other civil wrongs, defamation has a statute of limitations. The timer starts when the defamatory statements are published or spoken, regardless of when the other person notices. For example, if a person discovers defamatory statements about himself in a radio show six months after the broadcast, he doesn’t get an extra six months to file a lawsuit.
Libel and slander laws are addressed on a state-by-state basis. Most states define defamation as a civil wrong. In civil suits, the defendant pays monetary damages to the plaintiff if they’re found guilty. Some states (including New Hampshire and Mississippi) have statutes for criminal defamation. That means being convicted of defamation in these states could mean jail time.
Seriously, just don’t do it.