When one person intentionally makes false accusations about another person, business, group or entity. If the false statements cause harm, financially, emotionally and socially, it is considered an act of defamation. Depending upon the severity of the claim, a person can file a civil case in court in an attempt to retrieve damages for their pain and suffering associated with the false statements.
For most citizens, our personal character is an important part of our lives and we take offense when someone attempts to defame that character by spreading lies and rumors. Public figures, business owners and groups feel the same way we do as individuals when false accusations are made. All emotions, including anger and sadness, when hearing what is falsely being said.
What is defamation?
According to common law, in order for something to be considered defamation, it must be a false statement or false information about someone that is made to someone other than the defamed. The false statements must be made with the knowledge they are false in order to be considered defamation. Plus, these false statements and/or information must harm the reputation of an individual, product, group or business.
The law also distinguishes between spoken defamation, also known as slander, and defamation made through the media via print or images, which is also known as libel. The person who defames another is known as the defamer or slanderer. Another common name for the defamer is libeler.
From a legal standpoint, there is a fine line between defamation and freedom of speech. As there is a fine line between defamation and personal opinion. Not every false statement is intentionally made with the intent of causing harm, which is why it is important to have all of your facts straight before accusing someone of being a defamer. If not, it could be just as damaging to them, as the statements you believe they said were to you.
One of the earliest cases dealing with the libel side of defamation is the case of John Peter Zenger in 1735. As the publisher of the New York Weekly, he printed another man’s article criticizing William Cosby, the British Royal Governor of Colonial New York. Zenger was accused, but found “not guilty” of seditious libel, because he was able to prove the statements printed were indeed true.
As demonstrated in the case above, in order for something to be considered defamation, it must by definition be false and must harm one’s character. In a lawsuit, the defamed must prove the false statements were made with the intention of doing harm. Or they must prove that the defamer acted with a complete disregard for the truth. This is also referred to as proving malice in the courtroom.
Common defenses used by those accused of defamation include:
- It was the truth: Then it is up to the one who did the defaming to prove why he or she made the statement and why they believe it to be the truth.
- It was privileged information: It can be argued in court that the information was given by a secret source and was privileged information. Many journalists have spent time in jail for contempt of court after refusing to give up a source while in court or when facing defamation charges. There are two types of privilege – absolute and qualified. Qualified is the one most journalists use in court.
- Good faith: The statements made were in good faith and there was a reasonable belief that they were true at the time they were made, said or printed.
- Opinion: Everyone is allowed to state their own opinion, which is why this defense is accepted in just about every jurisdiction.
- Public interest: The statement was made in the best interest of the public. In other words, the public has a right to know the truth.
- Innocent dissemination: Meaning, the person who made the statements had no idea they were false and no intentions to defame the other person at the time.
- Consent: This defense is rarely used because it states that the person who is defamed actually gave consent to the defamer to write and publish the false statements. Without written proof or a signed contract, this defense is difficult to prove.
Defamation per se
Slander can be divided up into four different categories. Each of which are actionable “per se.” The four categories are:
- Accusing a person of committing a crime when they did not.
- Alleging someone has developed a foul disease, such as AIDS, HIV or a highly contagious disease.
- Adversely commenting about a person’s ability to conduct business within the community by stating they have immoral business ethics.
- Accusing someone of participating in serious acts of sexual misconduct, such as being a pedophile, rapist, bigamist or cheater.
For example by printing a false article saying a local grocer conducts mischievous acts of sexual behaviors while working and has contracted HIV as a result of his behavior, you could have a lawsuit filed against you for defaming him. Why? Because you made false statements about his sexual conduct and how he runs his business. Plus you made a false statement about a disease he probably does not have. Each one of these alone could harm his character and when put together, chances are he was put out of business and possibly run out of town.
What is the definition of character?
We keep referring to one’s character when discussing defamation. Why? Because the person’s character and reputation must be tainted by false accusations in order for a statement to be considered defamation. That is why most cases involving defamation refer to the charges and allegations as “defamation of character.”
To know if someone’s character has been tainted, it is important to know what their character was like before the accusations were made. For example, someone who is looked up to by others in the community and knows the different between right and wrong is often considered to have good character.
According to the Josephson Institute, there are six pillars of character. Those pillars are:
- Trustworthiness: Means the person has good integrity, is honest, is reliable and is loyal.
- Respect: Means the person treats others the way he or she wants to be treated, has a high level of tolerance and acceptance, is nonviolent and is courteous.
- Responsibility: Means they know what they are responsible for, are held accountable, pursue excellence and have high levels of self-control.
- Fairness: Means they are open-minded and are fair and just. They treat everyone the same, giving every person the same consideration when comparing the facts and coming to a decision.
- Caring: Means they have a high concern for others and are very charitable. They are well known in the community for their charitable work and donations.
- Good citizenship: Means they do their share in the community, at home and at work. They also have a high respect for authority and the law.
If any of these pillars are damaged, a defamation case may be filed and considered by the courts. However, it falls upon the victim that his or her character was indeed damaged by the false accusations.
Who can become a victim?
Just about anyone can fall victim to a defamer, including your neighbors, parents, teachers, local politicians, groups, actors, employees and businesses. The most common victims are those who are already in the public eye and in the media, such as actors and politicians. The only stipulation when it comes to claiming defamation is that the person who is being defamed must still be alive.
Some people who claim to be a victim of defamation, know the statements were true, but do not want others to know what was said to be true. That is why so many people still file claims against the defamer in hopes of proving to the community that the true statements are actually false, even when they are true.
Who can be the defamer?
There are many reasons why someone may make a false statement, whether it is intentional or accidental. Accidental defaming means the defamer was unaware that what he or she was saying at the time to be false. Plus, he or she truly believe what was being said to be true.
Anyone with a grudge, high level of jealousy, personal hate or recently had a bad experience can become a defamer. Many unsatisfied customers have been known to make statements that can cause damage to a local business. Plus, many celebrities fall victim to defamation because others may be jealous of what they have achieved. Ex-spouses have also fallen victim to defamation during a divorce.
In cases involving a celeb defamer, there is an additional level of difficulty proving a statement to be considered an act of defamation. Celebrities are considered public figures and under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, a public figure must prove “actual malice” when bringing an action for defamation to the courts. Meaning at the time the statements were made, the person knew them to be false and continued printing and/or publicizing the statements anyway.
The requirement for the additional proof was set forth in 1964 by the U.S. Supreme Court case of New York Times v Sullivan.
Many claim that public figures are those who intentionally invite attention and comments about their lives and character. So, how does one become a public figure? Let’s take a look at the elements of a public figure:
- Has a position of power and/or influence
- Actively participates in the affairs of society
- Have made achievements of notoriety levels
- Have thrust themselves to the forefront of controversial issues
The term “public figure” covers a broader spectrum than just celebrities and politicians. Some people may become involuntary public figures due to recent publicity, even if it is unwanted. For example, those accused of high profile crimes may be considered a public figure during the trial.
Where did the concept of defamation come from?
According to the Center for First Amendment Studies, earliest forms of defamation started with the Ninth Commandment, which stated one cannot bear witness against one’s neighbor. Thus, throughout history it became an act of antisocial behavior to originate lies about others. As societies advanced, punishments for originating lies about one’s neighbor have included everything from isolation, paying the victim for damages and death.
In England, kings severely punished those making false statements about their neighbors and through their traditions the crime of seditious libel was defined. Lawyers worked hard to prove cases of defamation giving royalty the evidence needed to prove intentional harm against another.
Over time and with new technology advances, cases of defamation have changed and developed new laws to help protect individuals, groups and businesses from falling victim to harmful and false statements. Now many defamers face fines and penalties associated with defamation cases. Some even face jail time, if the claims were considered criminal.
There are many consequences associated with making false statements, including criminal and civil action being taken against the defamer in a court of law. There are many things to prove when filing defamation claims as there are defenses against it. All-in-all, if a statement is not proven, do not print it or publicize it until you have proof it is truth. Because truth will be your best defense in court when facing claims of defamation.