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Slander and Libel

Posted by attorney Matthew Donaldson

The Law of Slander and Libel

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me." This statement can be far from true. Be aware that name calling, under certain strict circumstances, can damage one’s reputation seriously and thusly be actionable as a Dignitary Tort. If name calling is severe enough to meet the standards and be called Slander or Libel, although rare, a legal cause of action to collect damages “MAY" be initiated. Mitigation of the damage may entail a quick “retraction". Any such retraction under such a statement must clearly indicate that the statement was incorrect…however; the damage may have already been done.

Libel and Slander are two different offenses. Libel is restricted basically to written statements, but it can be committed by signs, pictures, or other representations of a person or his acts. Slander is limited to statements made by word of mouth.

Because it is in more permanent form and therefore arguably more harmful, written defamation is actionable without proof of “special damages". All that must be shown is that the words were written and that they were defamatory (and untrue) in regards to the person to whom they referred. The standard for a cause of action in written and untrue defamation is not a difficult one to establish. As to spoken defamation, unless the slander is of a certain CLASS, it is not actionable without proof of damages.

A New York Court has given a definition of Libel that expresses, in general, the law of this Country. It stated, “any written or printed article is Libelous or actionable IF it tends to expose the subject to public contempt, ridicule, aversion, disgrace, or induce an evil opinion of him/her in the minds of right-thinking persons AND to deprive him/her of their friendly intercourse in society." It must also be shown that the words were understandable to the general public and were meant to be understood in a derogatory sense. The party who was the subject of the statement has an advantage in that he or she does not have to show that people ACTUALLY took the words to be true.

To any charge of defamation THERE IS ONE VERY IMPORTANT DEFENSE: It is the defense of TRUTH. A case of defamation, generally, does not exist when the statement of which it is based is true from start to finish. The BURDEN OF PROVING THE TRUTH OF THE DEFAMATORY STATEMENT, HOWEVER, RESTS ON THE DEFENDANT IN A SUIT. To mitigate the damages that may be allowed, the defendant is permitted to show that the plaintiff has bad character and a bad reputation.

Where the defamer is shown to have been motivated by ill will or MALICE, courts and juries may award punitive damages—damages as a punishment—in addition to the other damages actually incurred.

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