Defamation of Character: Laws & Cases

Instructor: Kenneth Poortvliet
Defamation of character is any written or spoken intentionally false communication that harms a person's character. In this lesson we will explore what that means and look at the legal cases that have shaped that definition.

Sandy posts a picture of her ex-boyfriend, Fran, smoking marijuana. Fran's offer to attend West Point was rescinded, and he called his senator to help smooth things out with West Point. She refuses. In retaliation, Fran sends a retouched picture of her kissing someone who is not her spouse to his freelance photographer cousin who sends it to a tell-all website, the Megaphone. They believe it to be true, so they publish it. Consequently, she has an ethics charge brought against her. Fran sues Sandy, and the senator sues Megaphone. According to defamation law, they would both lose. Does that seem fair?

What Does Defamation of Character Mean?

Defamation of Character means intentionally false communication made about someone that harms their character. If the communication is written, it's called libel, if it's spoken, it's slander. The communication can be in any form and must be seen by at least one third party who is not the target of the communication. The medium used can be written word, voice, video, picture, illustration or any form that conveys a message.

So why would both Fran and the senator lose? In Fran's case, the picture was true. It was a picture of him smoking marijuana. Since the definition requires it to be a false statement, it's not defamation. But the senator has a case against Megaphone, right? The picture was fake and published to millions. The reason it's not defamation is because she is a public figure.

In a landmark case, NY Times v. Sullivan (1963), Sullivan was a city commissioner in charge of the Montgomery police department. The New York Times took out an ad accusing the Montgomery police department of ulterior motives in arresting Martin Luther King, Jr. for perjury. The ad claimed they arrested him to stop him from his attempt to integrate public offices and to encourage black citizens to vote. Sullivan sued for defamation of character and won a settlement for $500,000 in state court. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme court ruled that since Sullivan was a public figure, he had to prove that the Times wrote the article knowing it was false and did so with actual malice. Sullivan couldn't prove that, so he lost.

In their ruling, the court delineated between public and private figures. If someone is a private figure, then any false statement made that harms their character is defamation. If they're a public figure, then the fact that they're in the public eye means that they are fair game for attacks, even false ones. However, if the publisher of the statement did so with actual malice, then the public person has a case for defamation. To prove it, they have to show they published it with actual knowledge that the statements were false, or they printed it with reckless disregard for the truth.

What About the First Amendment?

Free speech is always balanced against other rights
Grave free speech RIP

It would seem that any charge of defamation would hurt freedom of speech. However, the court in the NY Times case said the right to not be defamed in the public arena is balanced against the right of free speech. A private person gets the most protection as all they have to do is prove that it was false and it was published negligently.

However, if the person is a public figure, they are afforded the least amount of protection because they are in the public eye voluntarily. The idea is that since they are already in the public eye, they have media access to set the record straight if a false statement is made.

So What are the Elements of a Defamation Case?

The elements of a charge are like ingredients. In a civil charge, if just one of the elements is not met, then there is no case. There are four elements to a defamation case:

1) A statement must be made that is false; and

2) It must be published to someone other than the object of the statement; and

3) The statement must be made with:

  • a) negligence for a private figure, or
  • b) with actual malice for a public figure; and

4) There must be actual monetary damages like loss of a job, or special damages that include emotional harm.

Public v. Private

After the NY Times v. Sullivan case, all courts in the U.S. had to apply the private person v. public person distinction when deciding defamation cases. But how do we know?

Screen Star Nichole Kidman and President Ronald Reagan are examples of public figures
Kidman Reagan

A famous celebrity like a movie star or a prominent political figure like a U.S. Senator are certainly public figures, but what about someone just barely in the public eye? In the NY Times case, the court said that Sullivan was a public figure because he was the police commissioner of a fairly large city. But what about other civil servants? Teacher? First Responders? If you are somewhat in the public eye, are you a 'public figure' for purposes of filing a defamation case?

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