Nobody likes it when others spread false information about them, so sometimes it's necessary to take action. If the false information reaches the level of defamation and is spread to third parties, it may constitute the legal charge of libel (if written) or of slander (if spoken). But what if the false reports and charges are made in a private letter only to the person being attacked? No lawsuit in this case, but the person may wish to respond forcefully to prevent further communication of the lies.
Libel and Slander
When someone's false reports harm another person's personal or professional reputation or his livelihood, it is called defamation. The law allows a person to recover damages for defamation when the false accusations are passed on to third parties and cause harm to the person being discussed.
Libel and slander are slightly different offenses. Slander occurs when someone speaks badly about another person, and the remarks are heard by a third person, injuring the subject's reputation or character. To be slander, the insulting words do not need to be recorded and slander can also include hand gestures.
Sometimes the false negative remarks are written, not spoken, or are published in a form that makes the comments accessible by third parties, including recorded audio. This form of defamation is called libel.
Read More: How to Sue Someone for Slander
Damages for Defamation
Anyone who is a victim of defamation can bring a lawsuit against the person responsible for damages to his reputation. In order to be defamatory, the statement must hold up the subject of the statement to scorn, hatred, ridicule, disgrace or contempt in the mind of any considerable and respectable segment of the community.
Some types of statements are automatically considered defamatory in some states. These include statements that the subject:
- Has committed a serious, notorious or immoral crime.
- Has an infectious or terrible disease.
- Is incompetent in his job, trade or profession.
Letter Response to False Allegations
If the false statements about a person are made only to that person, it is not defamation, since there could be no damage to the subject's reputation or business. However, that does not mean that the subject should not respond by letter, and a strong written challenge to the lies sometimes goes a long way toward keeping them from spreading.
It may be tempting for a person to ignore false and critical statements made to him by a colleague or a client, especially if they are so wrong and ridiculous that they don't seem to deserve a response. But this is not always the wisest course.
Any business person should respond by letter to false or partly inaccurate allegations or misleading statements relatively quickly. It is human nature to want to avoid a fight, but a business person or a professional ignores the claims at his own peril. Even if he is not thinking about filing a lawsuit, the person should respond, pointing out the inaccuracies in the statement in order to prevent a court down the road from treating a failure to respond as evidence that the statements in question are true.
Composing a Letter Response to False Allegations
The best tack to take when responding to false allegations is to write a serious, unemotional examination of the subjects raised. Repeat an allegation, then explain dispassionately the ways in which it is inaccurate. Then proceed to the next allegations.
Keep responses objective, factual and succinct. While this may not feel as satisfying as name-calling, it is likely to make a better impression on a judge should the matter rise to the level of defamation. And a calm, nondefensive response may de-escalate the situation or at least prevent the allegations from being passed on to third parties.
- SGR Law: Responding to False, Inaccurate, and Misleading Statements in Business Letters
- The Nest: How to Write a Letter Rebuking Allegations
- Response: Allegations Letter
- Higher Ed Jobs: Think Before Responding to Baseless Accusations
- Woculus: Using Email to Reply a Colleague Who Has Accused You Falsely
- The Legal Dictionary: Libel and Slander
- Nolo: Defamation, Libel and Slander
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.