An old childhood rhyme says, "Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me." However, most people learn at an early age how inaccurate that saying is -- and the law confirms this by allowing you to sue for defamation if someone's words cause harm to your reputation or your business.
Civil Lawsuit for Defamation
The word, "fame" comes from the Latin term, "fama," meaning reputation. The opposite of fame is defame, meaning to injure someone's reputation by saying bad things about that person. Under certain circumstances, a person speaking or publishing something bad about another person may be subject to a civil lawsuit for damages. If the words are spoken, the defamation is called slander, if the words are written, the defamation is called libel. A few states even have laws against criminal slander.
Elements of Slander
Not every negative word said about someone constitutes defamation. To win a lawsuit for slander, you must plead and prove each of the elements of the tort: First, a third party must overhear the words. A man and his business partner can scream insults at each other all day in the privacy of their office without defaming each other legally. Second, for words to rise to the level of defamation, they must be false; truth is an absolute defense to slander. Finally, the words must injure the reputation of the other person. If he had a terrible reputation before the words were tossed his way, he has lost little or nothing. Similarly, if the words are insulting but unlikely to damage a reputation -- for example, calling someone a fathead or a klutz -- they generally cannot be the subject of a lawsuit.
Sometimes a person's words, no matter how insulting, cannot serve as the basis for a lawsuit for defamation because they are privileged. For example, the testimony of a witness at a trial is privileged. Even if he speaks untruthfully, he cannot be sued for slander, although in some cases, lying under oath might constitute the crime of perjury. Similarly, lawmakers cannot be sued even for false, defamatory words if they are spoken in the course of their duties in office.
If you are a public figure -- someone who holds elected office, a celebrity or are famous in some other way -- you must prove an extra element in a slander suit: actual malice. This means that the speaker knew that what he was saying was false, or didn't take the time and effort to find out. This exception stems from a U.S. Supreme Court case, New York Times v. Sullivan, in which the newspaper was sued for defamation for publishing insulting things about a public figure. The Court said that it was essential to allow for open and lively debate about politicians without worrying about possible lawsuits. It ruled that a false statement made about a public figure can only be the subject of a defamation claim if there is proof that it was known to be false at the time it was made.