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What Is Defamation of Character?

Maggie Franz, Todd Clifton
  • Author
    Maggie Franz

    Maggie has taught communication and rhetoric at the university level for 8 years. She has a PhD in communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she specialized in legal rhetoric and critical race theory.

  • Instructor
    Todd Clifton

    Todd Clifton has a B.S. degree in Criminal Justice, has a M.S. degree in Management & Leadership, has a diploma in private investigation, and has helped former criminals reenter free society.

What are the definitions of defamation of character, slander and libel? Read defamation of character examples to learn how to prove when it has taken place. Updated: 07/09/2021

What Is Defamation of Character?

Defamation of character is the communicating of false messages in order to cause severe harm to another person's reputation. In U.S. law, defamation of character is not just a statement that could cause harm. It must be:

  • A statement of fact
  • That harmed someone's reputation, usually resulting in financial loss
  • That was intended to cause harm

Defamatory statements are not protected by the First Amendment's freedom of speech clause. Defamation of character is a tort, or a civil offense, that is based in common law, or the system of judge-made law that relies on precedent. If the jury finds for the plaintiff in a defamation case, the defendant will usually have to pay damages to the plaintiff.

A judge

Etymology and Meaning

Defamation comes from the Latin term diffamare, which connotes spreading rumors and scandals. The U.S. laws that prohibit defamation of character have their origins in the medieval English common law system. Similar to English law, in early U.S. law, defamation of character encompassed a much wider spectrum of expression, including statements that merely offended or criticized politicians. For example, the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798 and the Sedition Acts in 1918 criminalized publishing any "abusive" or "profane" language about the U.S. government.

In the mid-20th century, the courts began to limit defamation to substantially false statements of fact that cause harm to a person's reputation. In other words, true statements and opinions cannot be defamatory. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects people's right to voice opinions, no matter how offensive or subversive. Moreover, in cases that involve defamation of public figures, such as politicians and celebrities, the burden of proof is much higher. In these cases, plaintiffs must prove actual malice, or that the defendant acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

Defamation of Character

Kevin was the principal at the local elementary school. This was a job he had enjoyed doing for years. In fact, it had been 12 years since he has started this highly rewarding endeavor. All this changed in the past year. A parent of one of the third grade students had maliciously told a false story to a newspaper reporter who often visited the school. This resulted in a meeting with the superintendent of schools and an unpaid leave of absence. Try as he might, Kevin could not convince the superintendent that the story was false. It was only after talking to a close friend, who happened to be a lawyer, that Kevin realized he was the victim of defamation of character.

Defamation of character is the communicating of a false message in order to cause severe harm to another person's reputation. In our example, Kevin's reputation was severely harmed. Also, there are two types of defamation of character, and there are three areas that need to be proven in court to win a defamation of character lawsuit.

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Types of Defamation of Character

Defamation of character involves communicating false messages—stated as facts and not as opinions—that harm another person's reputation. There are two kinds of defamation of character: slander and libel. Slander is defamation by oral communication and libel is defamation by written communication. Historically, slander was seen as more harmful than libel because lower literacy rates made the spoken word more impactful than the written word.

What Is Slander?

Slander is defamation by spoken word that is communicated to a third-party. For instance, consider an in-person gathering like a town hall meeting. A city councilmember goes to the podium and says "the mayor has just been arrested for embezzling money from the public fund." Provided that this is a false statement, the city councilmember has just slandered the mayor because he or she accused the mayor of a crime.

What Is Libel?

Libel is defamation by written word that has been published or broadcast. Publication does not mean that the defamatory statement has to have reached a large audience. When a written statement is shared with a third party it is considered to have been published.

For example, a disgruntled employee at X company writes a Tweet that says, "Don't work for X company. The manager, Y, constantly harasses employees and forces them to work overtime with no pay." Provided that these accusations are false, the disgruntled employee has just libeled the company and the manager even though these statements were not published by a professional press and may have only been viewed by the employee's followers on Twitter.

Defamation of Character Examples

There are many examples of defamation of character in U.S. legal history. Below are two examples of defamation of character cases that went to court.

Example of Slander

In 2012, casino owner Steve Wynn won a slander lawsuit in California against "Girls Gone Wild" creator Joe Francis. According to the court case, during a 2010 court hearing Francis falsely claimed that Wynn had threatened to kill him over a gambling debt at his casino. The jury in this case found that Francis had, indeed, made false statements of fact that damaged Wynn's reputation. Moreover, the jury found that Francis acted with actual malice, in that he intended to cause harm and acted with reckless disregard for the truth. In turn, Francis had to pay $20 million in damages to Wynn.

Example of Libel

In 2016, University of Virginia administrator Nicole Eramo won a libel lawsuit against Rolling Stone magazine and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely. In 2014, Rolling Stone published an article by Erdely called "A Rape on Campus," which claimed that Eramo was complicit in covering up sexual assaults on UVA's campus. Eramo was subsequently fired from her position at UVA. Because these statements were false and Erdely could not corroborate her report with the police, the jury awarded Eramo with $3 million in damages.

Types

The two types of defamation of character are libel and slander. Libel is the writing of false accusations against another person with intent to harm. Libel is what the reporter wrote against Kevin, the principal.

Slander is saying false accusations against someone with intent to harm. Slander is what the parent told a reporter in the scenario with the principal.

Three Areas

There are three areas that need to be proven to win a defamation of character lawsuit:

False

First, what was said or written against a person must be proved false. Proving that an accusation is false can be challenging. Kevin the principal was told this by his lawyer friend. However, it can be done. In fact, in Kevin's case it could be done quite easily. As we delve further into Kevin's situation, this will become clear. The accusation must indeed be proven false.

Intending Harm

Second, it must be proven that the one who said or wrote the falsehood intended harm. While proving that an accusation may be false is challenging, proving that the accuser intended harm can be even more challenging. Clear and convincing evidence is needed.

Just casually saying something bad about someone would not be classified as intending harm. However, going to a news reporter and sharing damaging falsehoods about another person, when the person sharing knows the information is false, is clearly intending harm.

Harm That Resulted

Third, it must be proven that harm actually resulted to the victim of defamation of character. Proving that harm resulted is the third important area to understand.

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Video Transcript

Defamation of Character

Kevin was the principal at the local elementary school. This was a job he had enjoyed doing for years. In fact, it had been 12 years since he has started this highly rewarding endeavor. All this changed in the past year. A parent of one of the third grade students had maliciously told a false story to a newspaper reporter who often visited the school. This resulted in a meeting with the superintendent of schools and an unpaid leave of absence. Try as he might, Kevin could not convince the superintendent that the story was false. It was only after talking to a close friend, who happened to be a lawyer, that Kevin realized he was the victim of defamation of character.

Defamation of character is the communicating of a false message in order to cause severe harm to another person's reputation. In our example, Kevin's reputation was severely harmed. Also, there are two types of defamation of character, and there are three areas that need to be proven in court to win a defamation of character lawsuit.

Types

The two types of defamation of character are libel and slander. Libel is the writing of false accusations against another person with intent to harm. Libel is what the reporter wrote against Kevin, the principal.

Slander is saying false accusations against someone with intent to harm. Slander is what the parent told a reporter in the scenario with the principal.

Three Areas

There are three areas that need to be proven to win a defamation of character lawsuit:

False

First, what was said or written against a person must be proved false. Proving that an accusation is false can be challenging. Kevin the principal was told this by his lawyer friend. However, it can be done. In fact, in Kevin's case it could be done quite easily. As we delve further into Kevin's situation, this will become clear. The accusation must indeed be proven false.

Intending Harm

Second, it must be proven that the one who said or wrote the falsehood intended harm. While proving that an accusation may be false is challenging, proving that the accuser intended harm can be even more challenging. Clear and convincing evidence is needed.

Just casually saying something bad about someone would not be classified as intending harm. However, going to a news reporter and sharing damaging falsehoods about another person, when the person sharing knows the information is false, is clearly intending harm.

Harm That Resulted

Third, it must be proven that harm actually resulted to the victim of defamation of character. Proving that harm resulted is the third important area to understand.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is an example of defamation?

An example of defamation would be if a journalist published a story with the headline "Mayor arrested for drug trafficking." Provided that this is false, the journalist has defamed the mayor by accusing her of a crime.

What is the punishment for defamation of character?

If the plaintiff wins a defamation case, the defendant can be made to pay damages, or financial compensation. The defendant may have to pay actual damages to compensate for financial harm in the form of lost income or lost employment. Or, if the defendant acted with actual malice, he or she may have to pay punitive damages, which adds an extra penalty beyond what the plaintiff actually lost as a result of the defamatory statements.

How do you prove defamation of character?

To prove defamation of character, the plaintiff must show that the defendant made false statements of fact that caused damage to reputation and financial loss. If the plaintiff is a public figure, he or she has to show that the defendant acted with actual malice, or with reckless disregard for the truth.

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