False accusations are nothing new. People have probably been falsely accusing each other of vile and awful deeds for centuries. Defamation laws remain a person's best defense against false accusations. But the issue has become increasingly worrisome as the world adjusts to the common use of the internet to communicate.
What Is Defamation?
Defamation means making a false statement about another person that damages her reputation. Business entities can also be defamed. Defamation is a crime in some states, but is more commonly used as a cause of action in a civil action for damages. It is also called libel and slander.
False statements are at the core of a defamation charge. Some false statements are communicated in writing, like false accusations made in a newspaper article. These are termed libel.
False statements that are heard rather than read are called slander. These include communications passed from one person to another or false statements made in a radio broadcast.
What Are the Elements of Defamation?
The person that brings a defamation action is called the plaintiff, while the person or entity being sued is called the defendant. Before the plaintiff files her action, it's important for her to understand the elements that must be proved in order to win the case.
Generally, a plaintiff has to prove four elements in a defamation case:
- A false statement that is represented as fact.
- Publication or communication of that statement to someone else.
- The defendant acted with at least negligence in making the statement.
- Some harm occurred to the plaintiff as a result of the false statement.
Falsity of Statement Is Critical
In order to collect damages in a defamation case, the plaintiff has to prove that the defendant made a false statement that he either knew was false or should have known was false. What if someone publishes a statement of vile things a person did when she was young that were not generally known? This will not support a defamation charge since truth is an absolute defense.
Note that the false statement must clearly and specifically identify the plaintiff as the subject of the accusations. If the statement is vague and general, such as: "Politicians in this state are taking money from the oil lobby," the court will not construe it as targeting the plaintiff.
Public Figure Exception
The more famous a person is, the harder it is for him to sue for defamation. Many defamation laws have a public figure exception that applies to celebrities, politicians and other prominent people. In order to win a defamation claim, a public figure has to show that the person publishing the false statement acted with actual malice. This means actual knowledge of the falsity of the statement made or reckless disregard as to whether it is true or false.
Defamatory Internet Content
For all of the benefits society has reaped from the internet, it is also a fertile breeding ground for defamatory statements. People may libel others in their own blogs, in comments on other's blog posting, in social media sites or in chat rooms. Some websites say that they screen posts for illegal content, but they cannot examine every single post and evaluate it for defamatory content, so many defamatory postings end up online.
Complexity of Bringing an Internet Defamation Case
While someone who posts false statements on the internet about another person may be committing libel, it is far more complicated than other types of defamation cases. The plaintiff must figure out whom to sue and what is the appropriate court.
A plaintiff cannot sue website hosts and Internet Service Providers since the Communications Decency Act exempts them from most defamation claims. And it may be difficult to find the real identity of the person making those false allegations. In addition, the suit can only be brought in a state where the poster has significant contacts. The best idea is to contact an attorney with experience in internet defamation suits.
Read More: Two Types of Defamation
- The best way to preserve and protect your rights in any potential legal action is to consult a lawyer who is a specialist in that subject of law, and who is familiar with those laws in your geographic region.
- Release any information you have that objectively corroborates the truth as soon as you can. Nothing takes the steam out of a lie as quickly as the truth does -- especially when the truth is from a credible source.
- Ensure your efforts to suppress the original false accusations don't give them a greater audience than your accuser would ever achieve. By calling too much attention to an otherwise obscure false accusation, you may actually amplify its damage.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. 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 MA and an MFA in English/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.