Harm to Reputation or Economic Interests: Defamation, Libel, & Slander

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  • 0:06 Defamation, Label & Slander
  • 3:20 Carol Burnett v.…
  • 7:18 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kat Kadian-Baumeyer

Kat has a Master of Science in Organizational Leadership and Management and teaches Business courses.

The law recognizes a few ways in which a plaintiff's reputation and economic interests can be harmed: defamation, libel and slander. All three have a similar outcome, but require different elements be met.

Defamation, Libel and Slander

Hermie's Grocery Store recently had several big winners in the state lottery game. Excited about drawing new customers to this propitious proprietor, the manager began telling customers. Soon, word got out. Unfortunately, by the time the story hit the press, it had a whole new twist. The news read, 'Several of Hermie's Customers Got Sick.' The headline should have read, 'Several of Hermie's Customers Got Rich.'

When Hermie saw the news, he was furious. He thought: 'Sue everyone - from the newspaper to the editor, everyone will pay!' Before we decide on Hermie's case, let's set out exactly what harm to reputation looks like. This tort, formally known as defamation, is a statement communicated to a third party that harms a person. There are two ways in which this can happen: libel and slander.

In a libel claim, the harmful statement is written, like in a newspaper or a billboard. Slander, on the other hand, is an oral statement made to a third party that disparages another person. In a per se case, the facts are on face value. In a defamation suit, it means that the written or spoken word was so obviously damaging that it would be difficult to recover from their far-stretching effects, like saying a person is a rapist or a deranged criminal. And the burden of proof is generally on the plaintiff, or the target of the defamatory statements.

The court will not recognize every typo as an attempt to destroy lives. What they are looking for is whether malice was a motive. This means, the defendant meant to do evil or harm to another person either by intentionally reporting false statements or disregarding whether statements are really true. This is especially true when a public figure is on the business end of the false statements.

In Hermie's ordeal, did malice occur? Not so much! The editor didn't mean to cause harm or injury to the store's reputation. He merely neglected to check the facts. A statement like the one made about the customers falling ill can easily be retracted. And that is probably what the newspaper will do. In other words, the newspaper will take back their statement and replace it with one that reads correctly, which may look something like this:

'Correction: Hermie's customers did not get sick. Our headline should have read that Hermie's customers got rich because several of his customers purchased winning lottery tickets. We regret our mistake.'

In some cases, it is not an error in fact, and slander or libel is deliberate. This is where it can get a little muddy. The First Amendment of the Constitution allows for freedom of speech of the press. Four important things need to be established:

  • Defamatory statements were published or broadcast to a wide audience.
  • The statements are untrue.
  • The false information caused injury to the plaintiff.
  • The information is not privileged or private.

So, just how can someone prove a defamation suit? Let's review a case involving a celebrity and a misinformed informant.

Carol Burnett V. National Enquirer, Inc.

Everyone loves juicy celebrity gossip. In fact, publications like the National Enquirer tease us with chinwag about some of our favorite stars everywhere from the checkout counter to the newsstands. But how much of what we read is true? We will see. In Carol Burnett v. National Enquirer, Inc., we will learn that although a detour from the facts was not intended, the truth must be told.

Sometime in March, 1976, Carol Burnett, a famous actress and advocate against alcoholism, was dining at a Washington, D.C. restaurant. During dessert, a couple seated near her party inquired about Burnett's soufflé. Burnett gathered plates and began dishing out a small serving for the curious couple to enjoy. Another couple, curious about the star's generosity, asked to share as well. So, Burnett obliged.

Once finished, Burnett and a friend happened upon Henry Kissinger at another table. The friend made an introduction, and Burnett and Kissinger engaged in a pleasant conversation. An unwitting Burnett did not know that she was being watched by a National Enquirer informant. In the days to follow, the publication printed a headline that read, 'Carol Burnett and Henry K. in a Row,' and suggested that Burnett and Kissinger argued at the restaurant. Not only that, the story reports that Burnett consumed alcohol, was tipsy and pranced around the restaurant sharing dessert, spilling drinks and otherwise disrupting fellow diners.

As truth would have it, Burnett only consumed two or three glasses of wine. She did share dessert, but did not walk around the dining room disturbing guests. And, she did speak with Kissinger, but in a mild and friendly tone.

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