What is Libel? - Definition, Laws & Cases

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  • 0:01 What Is Libel?
  • 2:17 The Law on Libel
  • 3:52 Defenses Against Libel Charges
  • 4:15 Libel Case Law
  • 6:50 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

In this lesson, you can learn how a statement can be considered libel while also studying the defenses to a libel legal action. You will also review two significant historical cases regarding libel and see how libel fits in with journalism and First Amendment rights.

What Is Libel?

When one reads or listens to another individual's words, one typically listens with an open mind. In other words, there is generally no reason to be suspicious of the speaker's words. This situation is particularly applicable where journalists report on other people or entities.

When a person, journalist or not, writes or speaks privately or publicly about another person or party, that person has to abide by the law of libel. Failure to do so will result in possible litigation arising from the false statement.

Libel arises when one makes a false statement about another person or entity that causes harm to that person's or entity's reputation. In order to be treated as libel, there must be publication of the statement; in other words, the statement must be made to another person. Publication of the libelous statement can be made by a written format, such as a newspaper article or internet posting, or by an oral statement, such as in conversation or by radio or television. In addition, the statement can be made to one person or many people, such as in a speech. Furthermore, cartoons, signs, and artistic depictions can be treated as libel if they include false statements and are communicated to another person.

The libelous statement must also be expressed as a factual statement. Thus, the statement is not just another person's opinion about a person or entity. For example, if one says 'The actress looked disheveled,' this would be an opinion and not a statement, and as such, does not constitute libel. On the other hand, if the statement was 'The actress was drunk and looked disheveled', this would constitute libel if the actress was not drunk. Consequently, if one is critiquing a person or entity, it does not constitute libel if the critique expresses an opinion. Moreover, libel differs from slander because slander refers solely to spoken words. However, even though radio or television broadcasts involve spoken words, the fact that the words are made via a transfixed method results in the radio and television broadcasts conveying libel.

The Law on Libel

Libel is an action based upon torts. Moreover, the specific laws applicable to a tort depend upon the state with jurisdiction over the case. Generally, in order to sue for libel, one must demonstrate that the libelous statement is not only false, but also caused, or could potentially cause, harm to one's reputation. The statement must also cause others to dislike, hate, or have contempt for the party against which the statement was made. Furthermore, the law requires proof that the libelous statement was actually published; that is, the false statement was communicated to another person. Finally, in order to succeed in a libel lawsuit, one must demonstrate that actual harm occurred to one's reputation or occupation as a result of the libelous statement.

In order to sue for damages for a libel case, it is necessary to demonstrate that actual harm was made to the party against whom the statement was made. Additionally, where one can prove that a party either wrote or spoke the libelous statement with a malicious intent, one can obtain special damages, which are additional monies designed to punish the publisher of the statement.

In addition, there are special laws in most jurisdictions regarding individuals in the public eye. These cases relate mostly to politicians and other governmental figures and indicate that a public figure is immune from libel suits. Therefore, if a public person attempts to file a successful libel case against a party for a false statement, it is necessary that the person demonstrate malicious intent.

Defenses Against Libel Charges

There are several key defenses one can assert if they are sued for defamation. Initially, if the statement is true, the speaker cannot be liable for the statement. Additionally, where statements are from official documents, such as records of meetings, the statements cannot be treated as libel. Finally, if the statements are expressions of opinion only, these cannot be the basis for a libel lawsuit.

Libel Case Law

There are thousands of libel cases in the United States. However, there are key cases that are relied upon in most libel lawsuits. Many of these suits pertain to the First Amendment, which includes one's freedom of speech.

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