Written by attorney Robert Daniel Kelly

Defamation of Character on the Internet

Defamation of character guide

Defamation of character has been a cause of action at law for centuries. It involves false, defamatory statements made to a third party which cause damages. Some statements can be privileged - immune from suit, i.e. statements made in court cases. Slander is when the statements are oral. When the statements are written, they are libel. Related causes of action include public disclosure of private facts and portrayal in a false light. It is more difficult for public figures to sue for defamation of character because they have thrust themselves into the public eye.

Defamation actions were popular in Merry Olde England because the nobility made them so. In America, where people were more mobile, defamation actions have been less used. Statutes of limitations for defamation actions are typically shorter than for other personal injury actions. There is always the question of the extent of the damages and whether the defendant has resources or can be made to pay. People sue media (i.e. newspapers and t.v. stations) more often because the media has resources to pay for the damage they have done.

The internet is a new a developing feature in the world. Consequently, the law is developing in this area. The internet has an extremely powerful ability to spread any kind of statement - true or false, foolish or wise, cruel or kind. The internet can amplify the damages of defamation. For example, in 2006, a Broward County, Louisiana Circuit Court jury in 2006 heard the case of a Plaintiff named Sue Scheff who sued for Internet defamation. Ms. Scheff alleged the Defendant had posted caustic messages against the Scheff and her company, claiming she was a "con artist" and "fraud". The jury verdict was in the amount of $11.3 million.

Rumors and backstabbing can take on a particularly vigorous strength when posted on a social networking site like facebook. Due to the difficulties of dealing with such broadcast libel, some people have felt compelled to commit "facebook suicide" - disconnecting their profiles for good.

An internet service provider is generally protected from a defamation action. In Reit v. YELP!, Inc., et al. --N.Y.S.2d---, 2010 WL 3490167 (N.Y.Sup.), the Federal Communication Decency Act of 1996 (“CDA") protected Yelp from liability for defamation. Apparently, though, if the internet outfit has an interactive approach to gathering information or opinion, the outfit can be liable. Carafano v., Inc., Case No. CV 01-0018 DT (CWx) C.D. Cal. 2002) (subsequently reversed by appeals court). The more active the service is with its member's, the greater the likelihood of potential liability as a publisher of defamatory materials.

It is important to seek legal counsel to evaluate a specific claim.

One alternative is to employ an internet company to remove the defamation. There are some outfits who make varying claims regarding being able to fix internet defamation. See

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I make no assertions regarding whether they can do as they say, but there they are.

There may be jurisdictional issues where somebody posts something in one state which hurts somebody in another state. Courts appear to be tending toward favoring establishing jurisdiction where the plaintiff resides. See Griffis v. Luban, 633 N.W. 2d 548 (Minn Ct. App. 2001), but see English Sports Betting, Inc. v. Tostigan, C.A. No. 01-2202 (E.D. Pa. 2002).

The problems with bringing defamatory actions based on internet postings largely lie in proving that the defendant actually made the posting. If that connection can be made, a much stronger case can be presented and jurisdictional issues can be tackled. An attorney who is experienced in cyberlaw and internet cases can improve your chances in prevailing in any such case. Without the help of an attorney who can find and connect the evidence, most internet defamation cases will fail for lack of evidentiary sources and experience.

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