What Is Libel Law?

By Claire Gillespie - Updated April 17, 2018
Newspaper.

You don't have to be a celebrity to sue for defamation. If someone makes a false statement about you in permanent written form such as a letter, email, blog post, tweet or newspaper article, you may have a case for libel. However, you must prove that the statement caused you real harm. In other words, you can't sue someone just for making an offensive remark about you.

Tip

You can sue someone for libel if he makes a false statement of fact about you that is communicated to others in written (or other permanent) form. The statement has to cause real harm to your reputation.

What Is Criminal Libel Law?

Libel, which comes under defamation law, is a civil claim for false statements of fact about a person communicated to others in written or other permanent form. This covers emails, blogs, tweets, texts, newspaper articles, TV or radio broadcasts, video clips uploaded to the internet or handwritten letters.

No criminal defamation laws exist at the federal level in the United States, although a few states, including Florida, Montana and Texas, recognize criminal defamation.

In civil libel law, the damage caused by the false statements of fact is to a private individual. In criminal libel law, the damage is to the public (although the defamation could be of a living or deceased individual, a public official, a government body or a group).

What Does Action for Libel Mean?

An individual brings an action for libel to sue another individual or group for defamation. The action is based on a defamatory false statement published to a third party that the communicator knew (or should have known) was false, and which caused injury to the subject.

For a successful action for libel, the false statement must be defamatory, meaning it causes real harm to the subject's reputation. It's not enough for the statement to be merely insulting or offensive. Name-calling, hyperbole or another type of statement that can't be proven true or false is not cause for an action for libel.

The false statement must also have been published to at least one other person (besides the subject) and any person who reads the statement must identify it with the subject. In other words, it must be clear who the statement is referring to.

The false statement must be made with fault, the extent of which depends on the status of the plaintiff. A public figure (such as a celebrity or government official) must prove actual malice, i.e., that the defendant knew his statement was false or recklessly disregarded the truth or falsity of the statement. A private individual must only show that the defendant was negligent, i.e., that he failed to act with due care.

What Is Slander?

Slander is another form of defamation, referring to verbal statements and gestures. Generally, the same rules generally apply to libel and slander, but in some jurisdictions, the statute of limitations for slander is shorter than for libel. For example, in Tennessee a six-month statute of limitations applies to slander action and a one-year statute of limitations applies to libel actions. Most states have a one or two-year statute of limitations for all defamation actions.

About the Author

Claire is a qualified lawyer and specialized in family law before becoming a full-time writer. She has written for many digital publications, including The Washington Post, Forbes, Vice and HealthCentral.

Cite this Article A tool to create a citation to reference this article Cite this Article