Law of Defamation

Libel vs. Slander

Defamation is essentially an injury to reputation. In Alabama, defamation is defined as a false statement of fact, published or spoken with some degree of fault, that tends to harm the reputation of another so as to lower him or her in the estimation of the community.  Libel and slander are types of defamatory statements. Libel is a written defamatory statement, and slander is a spoken or oral defamatory statement.


As in every case, the person bringing a defamation claim bears the burden of proof related to the elements of the cause of action and the damages claimed. The first legal hurdle in a defamation case is proving the statement in issue is false. Second, one must prove the statement was made with some degree of fault. This could include an actual intent to harm, but also could include a statement made carelessly. Next, one must show that the statement in question did in fact hurt or harm her reputation with the recipient (and to others who may have also received or heard of the false statement.) Finally, a claimant must prove the extent and nature of the damages caused by the false statement.


These four hurdles make defamation/libel cases somewhat difficult because unless one can prove all four elements, her case will not be successful. Alabama law does allow the recovery of punitive damages for defamatory statements but the claimant must also prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant consciously or deliberately engaged in oppression, fraud, wantonness, or malice with regard to the plaintiff in order to recover punitive damages. Also, before punitive damages can be considered in a libel action, the claimant must have requested a retraction before filing a lawsuit.


Defenses to defamation


Truth is an absolute defense to defamation.  That is, the claimant has the burden of proving that the statement in question is false.  If the statement is true or substantially true, then the claim will fail.  Likewise, a statement of opinion may not be considered defamatory.  That does not mean, however, that a person can insulate herself by adding the phrase “In my opinion” to a otherwise defamatory statement of fact.  “Satire” is also a defense to defamation (which is one way that comedians and late night talk show hosts get away with much of their material).


Public vs. Private Figure


The degree of fault needed for a successful defamation action depends upon whether the person bringing the claim is a public or private figure.  Private individuals (those who are not in the public eye) must prove that the defendant published the statement that is complained of either intentionally or with negligence. Negligence means the failure to exercise reasonable care–that is, such care as a reasonably prudent person would have exercised under the same or similar circumstances.  By contrast, public figures or public officials must show by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant published the statement that is complained of with actual malice–that is, with knowledge that the statement was false or with “reckless disregard” for the truth of the statement.  By making it more difficult for a public person to sustain a claim for defamation, the law encourages public discourse regarding elected officials and other public figures, such as celebrities.


Evolving defamation law affects how we in the community give and receive information. For example, the suits brought by Richard Jewell (Atlanta security guard who discovered planted pipe bomb at Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games who was falsely accused of planting the bomb himself and later exonerated by the FBI)
against many news outlets changed the way the news media refer to or label those being investigated for or suspected of criminal wrongdoing.  Since Mr. Jewell’s case, many media outlets now use the term “person of interest” as opposed to “suspect”.  Additionally, many states require that a news outlet issue retractions in the same manner and context as the original defamatory statement was published.  For example a defamatory page one headline cannot properly be retracted on the bottom of page nine.

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