Two Types of Defamation

By Heather Seiden

Defamation is when a person's reputation and name are tarnished as a result of a communication made to a third party. A defamatory communication negatively affects the plaintiff's esteem, respect, good will or confidence in which the plaintiff is held. In addition, the communication could be defamatory if it excites adverse, derogatory or negative feelings or opinions about the person. The two main types of defamation are libel and slander. There are notable differences between these torts.

Libel

Libel is a type of defamation in which the communication is published and disseminated to a third party. Originally, libel was simply "the written word," but this has been extended to include pictures, signs, representations such as an effigy and other means in which a third party would be able to receive the information.

To prove the cause of action of libel, several elements must be met. There must be publication of the item to at least one person other than the plaintiff, identification of a particular person, a defamatory or false statement about that person, the party who published the statement must be at fault and have known the statement to be false and the plaintiff in some instances must be able to demonstrate actual injury.

Slander

In general, slander differs from libel in that the communication is usually of an oral nature. In addition, a slander cause of action requires the plaintiff to show special damages resulting from the communication. However, there are a few exceptions to the damages rule. The imputation of crime or of a loathsome disease, communications affecting a person's business or profession, or the implication that a woman is "unchaste" do not require proof of actual harm. In these instances, proof of the actual defamation will suffice to show the existence of damages.

Absolute Defense to Defamation

In both libel and slander, proving that the information that was disseminated is true is an absolute defense to these causes of action. In addition, citing the communication as opinion may work as a possible defense. However, courts are occasionally mixed in deciding what constitutes an opinion.

Public Figures

In both libel and slander, there is also a notable difference in the standard of proof if the plaintiff is a public figure instead of a private figure. The famous case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan ruled that if a person is a public figure, the standard of proof required in a defamation action is actual malice. This means that the information must have been published knowing it was false or with a reckless disregard for the truth. This is designed to allow for freedom of the press.

A private figure must only prove that the publisher acted negligently and is not required to prove the more difficult "actual malice" standard.

About the Author

Heather Seiden is a freelance writer and information technology professional residing in Northern California. She has been doing freelance work for over 15 years and her work has appeared in numerous publications including the "Baltimore Sun," "Writer's Digest" and several other publications. Seiden holds a bachelor's degree in political science and mass communications.