Don't look to the police to protect your child against defamation of character. It is not a crime but a tort that can result in a civil law suit for money damages. Defamation of character occurs when someone says or publishes a false statement about another person, causing financial damage. Minors have the same rights and protections under defamation law as adults except that they cannot sue on their own behalf. If someone says or publishes an untrue statement that damages your child, you may bring suit on the child's behalf.
A False Statement About Another Person
Defamation of character is a false statement made or published about someone else that harms that person. The term includes both slander, describing a false spoken statement, and libel, a false published statement. To be slanderous, the false statement must have been made within the hearing of a third party. To be libelous, the written statement can be published in print, emails, social media sites or other types of publications. Defamation can also include a combination of slander and libel.
It's easier to understand defamation of character if you consider examples. Let's say you are trying to get a new job. The prospective employer phones your prior supervisor who falsely tells him that you were fired for theft. This is slander. If, instead of phoning, the prospective employer emails your prior supervisor who replies by email with the false theft story, that is libel. Both are defamation of character, whether about an adult or a minor.
False and Injurious Statements
It is not enough to win a defamation action that a false statement is made to or in front of a third party. In order to have a case for defamation, you must not only show the untrue statement, but you must also show that it directly caused the damages.That can be harder. In the above examples, you can easily prove you were not fired for theft, but it may be harder to establish that you didn’t get the new job because of your previous employer’s false statement. The prospective employer may not want to get involved in the case and give some other reason for not hiring you.
A few types of defamation are considered damaging without proof of the actual damage. These include false statements accusing someone of criminal activity.
Defamation of a Minor
Defamation cases involving minors must be brought by their parent or guardian. Minors do not have standing to bring a court action.
The type of defamation cases typically brought on behalf of minors involves bullying, in person or, more often, on social media. When defamation is alleged as a result of bullying, it rises to the level of defamation only if you can show some damages, like financial harm and emotional distress.
Minors usually do not suffer financial harm, since it is rare they have financial interests. However, it is possible for a minor, just under 18, to lose out on a job offer because of libel or slander. For emotional distress, you often have to establish a physical manifestation that is visible to a doctor, teacher or social worker. This can be a stress-caused disorder like bulimia or migraines, or even an inability to focus on schoolwork. Showing that a child is shunned by friends or neighbors will likely be sufficient.
If you bring an action for defamation for your child, don't just ask for damages. You should also ask the court to grant an injunction to prevent further libel or slander.
Read More: What Are Defamation of Character and Slander?
Minors have the same rights and protections under defamation law as adults, so if someone says or publishes an untrue statement that financially damaged your child, you may bring suit on the child's behalf.
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.