What’s The Difference Between Slander, Libel And Defamation?

August 27, 2010

“You’re a complete idiot for reading this post.”

Have I just slandered, libeled or defamed you?

tabloid time
Image by mtsofan via Flickr

Since these untrue words (you’re not an idiot, you’re great!) are written instead of spoken, I’ve theoretically committed libel instead of slander. Do they constitute defamation? That’s a more complex question.

Defamation is the communication of a false statement about another person which causes that person harm. If the defamatory statement is written or printed, it’s considered libel. If the statement is spoken, it’s considered slander.

The complexity comes when you try to recover damages. Four elements must be present to successfully bring action for defamation:

  1. A false and defaming statement must have been made against the plaintiff
  2. The statement must have been communicated to a third party
  3. The accused must be responsible for its communication (at least through negligence)
  4. The plaintiff must have suffered damage (diminished reputation and/or mental anguish)

Many defense are available to someone accused of defamation. First and foremost, there’s the question of truth. If the accused can prove that the statement in question is true, no defamation has occurred.

There’s also the question of “privilege.” Some statements — such as those made by lawyers in court or elected officials in a legislative session — are considered privileged, and cannot result in defamation regardless of their inaccuracy or outrageousness.

Arguing that a statement was an “opinion” or a “fair comment on a matter of public interest” are also common defenses against the charge of defamation.

Public figures are afforded very limited protection against defamation. They must prove that the false statement in question was made with “actual malice,” meaning it was not only false but issued with reckless disregard as to its truth.

In short, pursuing a defamation action is very difficult and often counter-productive. These actions usually generate more publicity than the original libel or slander, are expensive, often yield small damage awards if successful, and reinforce in the public’s mind the truthfulness of the false statement if unsuccessful.

Obviously, you’re not a complete idiot for reading this post. In fact, you’re very well informed.

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