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libel and slander

libel and slander, in law, types of defamation. In common law, written defamation was libel and spoken defamation was slander. Today, however, there are no such clear definitions. Permanent forms of defamation, such as the written or pictorial, are usually called libel, while the spoken or gestured forms are called slander.

The term libel is also often used if a wide audience for the defamation is possible. Courts have split over which category radio and television are in; today's statutes generally categorize defamation occurring in those media as slander. The offenses are alike in several respects. The defamation—essentially exposure to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or pecuniary loss—must directly affect the reputation of a living person. It must be published, i.e., revealed to someone besides the subject of the attack. It is no defense that the defendant merely repeated but did not originate the defamation.

The plaintiff is required to prove the colloquium (circumstances of utterance showing that the statement was directed against him or her specifically) and, when necessary, the innuendo (the factors making an apparently innocent statement defamatory). Generally, truth is an absolute defense in a suit for defamation. A false defamatory statement may be privileged if the actor was a legislator, executive officer, or speaking in a court proceeding. The requirement of colloquium makes unactionable defamation of a large group, e.g., a racial or professional group.

Whether the charge is libel or slander is important. Most libels are deemed injurious and give immediate ground for suit. However, only certain types of statements are slanderous per se and do not require proof of pecuniary damages; these include imputation of crime, of loathsome disease, or of professional or occupational incapacity. In other cases, there may not be any recovery unless the pecuniary loss caused by the injury is proved. The award to the successful plaintiff in a suit for defamation will usually include punitive, as well as compensatory, damages if the defendant willfully lied or published the defamation repeatedly.

In the United States, New York Times Company v. Sullivan (1964), the Supreme Court provided a significant expansion of the protection of the press from libel actions. Stemming from a case in which an elected official in Montgomery, Ala., complained of defamation by civil-rights activists, the court ruled that to protect the free flow of speech and opinions, public officials could only collect damages for libel if falsehoods were made with "reckless disregard" for the truth. This ruling has since been extended to any celebrity before the public.

The Sullivan ruling shifted the burden of proof in many libel cases from the defendant to the plaintiff, who must now prove the falsehood was issued with actual malice, that is, with deliberate knowledge that the statement was both incorrect and defamatory. The ruling was a victory for the media, but left the plaintiff with the difficult task of obtaining the sources for the allegedly libelous information—sources that reporters often hold confidential. In most cases, the court requires the plaintiff to show that a reasonable effort has been made to obtain the information elsewhere before it requires the reporter to divulge any sources.

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has allowed that only factual misrepresentation is to be considered libel or slander, not expression of opinion. It has also ruled that libel suits may be filed across state lines, not only in the state where the plaintiff lives. Libel suits apply not only to the media and public personalities but also to businesses, which account for approximately 70% of all suits. In recent years, producers of foods and other goods have succeeded in urging more than a dozen states to pass laws allowing them to sue critics of the safety or other aspects of their products; experts predict such laws will be overturned, but they have in the meantime had a "chilling" effect on public discussion in some cases. In 2010 the U.S. Congress enacted legislation that makes foreign libel judgments that fail to conform to U.S. standards unenforceable in the United States.

For criminal, or seditious, libel, see press, freedom of the.

Bibliography

See N. L. Rosenberg, Protecting the Best Men: An Interpretive History of the Law of Libel (1986); R. A. Smolla, Suing the Press (1986); A. Lewis, Make No Law: The Sullivan Law and the First Amendment (1991).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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