Defamation is a civil cause of action available when someone makes a statement that harms another person's reputation. According to Nolo, a legal information website, two interests must be balanced: the freedom of speech and protection from lies and harmful comments that damage a person's character or reputation in the community. You must check with your state's laws for specifics; some general information may be helpful, however.
Defamation falls into two types: libel and slander. Libel is written defamation; slander is spoken. To prevail, you must prove that the defendant made a false statement, that it was published and that you suffered damages as a result. Publication means that a third party heard or read the statement. Certain statements are defamation in and of themselves. According to ExpertLaw.com, statements that attack a person's business reputation, allege that an unmarried woman is unchaste, claim that a person has a venereal disease or claim that a person committed a heinous crime are defamation "per se."
When you sue someone for defamation, you must be aware of certain defences and be prepared to present counterarguments against the defences. Defendants commonly assert truth and opinion as defences. If the statement is true, you have not been defamed. Opinions depend on the specific context. Statements may also be privileged. For example, employers have a limited privilege to discuss an employee's character or job performance.
Initiating a Lawsuit
If you believe that someone has defamed your character, you can initiate a lawsuit by filing a complaint in the proper court. In the complaint, you must allege the facts necessary to show that the defendant defamed you and that you suffered damages as a result of the defendant's false statement. Once you file your lawsuit, the court will schedule times for meetings and hearings. The case may need to go to trial if it is not settled.
Prevailing on a defamation claim is not easy. Plaintiffs must contend with certain nuances, according to their state laws. For example, states often require the plaintiff to specifically allege what the defamatory statements were; it is not enough to simply claim that a defendant said or wrote something defamatory---the plaintiff must point to specific language. The plaintiff must also follow relevant civil procedure and evidence rules. It is strongly recommended that readers seek legal assistance before proceeding.
- Nolo: Defamation Law Made Simple
- ExpertLaw: Defamation, Libel and Slander Law; Aaron Larson; August 2003
- On Point News: Tenant's Grip Tweet Too Vague to be Libel, Judge Says; Matthew Heller; January 2010
- Potential Liability Associated With New York Employers Providing Employment References; John M. Bagyi, Esq.; July 2005