Defamation, Slander and Libel: The Basics

Looking at Defamation from a PR Perspective

Libel and Slander
••• Getty Images/Chris Ryan

If you’re a public figure, or you work in public relations, there may be times when people say outrageously wrong things–on TV, in print, or on the web–about you or a client, and your gut reaction is to file a lawsuit. However, you need to know when the law is on your side (despite someone's false accusations).

The law differs depending on where you live. British law makes it easier to win these sorts of lawsuits.

In the United States, it’s tougher.

No journalist wants to be sued. Every reporter who has gone to journalism school has taken press law and will guard against someone filing a lawsuit against them saying that they, "carelessly and knowingly printed lies or said lies over the air, and those lies hurt somebody."

From a PR standpoint, if something slanderous has been said about a client, filing a lawsuit for defamation, slander, libel, or invasion of privacy is a big step—and can be a big mistake.

You Need to Understand the Law 

While the law is often open to interpretation, the common principle in defamation of character cases is basically the following: 

  1. Someone published a falsehood about another person. 
  2. That falsehood was damaging to that person in some way. 

Then it gets complicated.  

“Published” doesn’t have to mean printed in a newspaper. It can be said on a TV program, on the radio, on a social media platform, in a speech, or printed on a  bumper sticker—basically, it has to be spread somehow, intentionally.

Libel Versus Slander

Libel typically refers to publishing something that’s permanent, such as a newspaper article.

Slander usually refers to spreading a falsehood by saying it, or another transitory method. In the electronic age, that could be during an online chat session.

When a Regular Citizen Is the Victim

Regular citizens are treated differently, both when they say something false and when they’re the victims of defamation.

If you’re a private citizen, and a newspaper prints something false that’s damaging, a much lower bar is set to collect damages from someone in court.

For example, Joe Smith, a plumber, is minding his own business. Somebody with a similar first and last name—Joey Smith—is arrested and accused of a shooting a police officer. The newspaper is careless and puts a story on the front page with the headline, “Joe Smith accused of shooting a state trooper.” The paper also runs a photo of you, which they had on file when you were the Rotary Club vice president. 

Clearly, they published a falsehood and obviously, it’s damaging. Joe Smith's good name is besmirched and Joe will likely lose business. This is a classic case where a correction on the bottom of page three won’t fix things. Therefore, you would expect to see a lawsuit for libel and the newspaper would probably lose, awarding damages to Joe Smith.

When a Public Figure Is the Victim

In the United States, the bar is set much higher when a public figure, celebrity, or actor has been wronged.

The 1964 Supreme Court case New York Times vs. Sullivan established that a public figure must prove that not only was a false statement published but that it was published with “actual malice.”

That means the person or media organization making the false statement knew it was false but published it anyway, or should have known it was false. They must have demonstrated “reckless disregard for the truth”—either they didn’t check, or they didn’t care. This is a huge hurdle to leap.

The Gray Area

There’s an in-between category of a “limited public figure” (a non-famous person), who injects themselves into a debate or the public eye. If you do that, you lose some of the protections that you had when you were just a private citizen.

Even if all of the conditions are met and it's a slam-dunk case, there are still obstacles to overcome such as ancillary negative publicity. So, before you call the lawyers, think about the likelihood of a successful lawsuit and any unwanted bad press.