Defamation is the injury of a person’s reputation by false or malicious statements. In order to win a defamation case a plaintiff must prove four things:
- That a false statement of fact was made;
- That the statement was published to someone other than the person defamed;
- That the statement was of and concerning the plaintiff, and;
- That the statement tends to harm the plaintiff.
Traditionally, “slander” is the term used for spoken or otherwise transitory defamatory statements while “libel” is used to describe defamatory statements that are less transitory, including newspaper and magazine articles. In some jurisdictions, however, including Virginia, slander and libel are combined into a single cause of action known simply as “defamation.”
Traditionally, certain statements have been considered to be “slander per se”—statements that are assumed to be harmful without the plaintiff having to prove that he or she was harmed. Statements that are considered slander per se vary among the states, but may include statements that injure a person’s reputation in a trade or profession, allegations that a person carries a “loathsome disease” such as sexually transmitted disease, suggestions of “unchastity” particularly with respect to a woman, and allegations that a person has committed a crime of moral turpitude.
Truth is a defense to a defamation claim. If a defendant can prove that what he said is a truthful statement of fact, he or she will not liable for defamation. Moreover, a statement that is clearly a statement of opinion, as opposed to a statement of fact, generally cannot form the basis of a defamation claim.
The First Amendment of the United States Constitution, which prohibits the government from interfering with the freedom of speech, also limits the scope of defamation claims. The landmark 1964 Supreme Court decision New York Times Co. v. Sullivan created a “public figure” defense to defamation. Public figures—for example, politicians, professional athletes and other celebrities—can only win a defamation case if they can prove that the person who made the defamatory statement did so with actual knowledge that the statement was false or that the person making the statement made it “with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
The Kaplan Law Firm represents both plaintiffs and defendants in libel and slander cases. We do not charge for an initial consultation. You may contact us by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by telephone at (703) 665-9529.