What are the differences between slander, libel, and defamation? All three terms refer to the act of making unjustified false statements about someone else, but they should not be confused with each other.
Defamation of character is a broad term that includes libel and slander, both of which refer to slightly different concepts.
What Is Defamation?
Defamation refers to the act of making oral or written false statements about another that unjustly damages their reputation. It causes people who hear or see the communication to think negatively about the person or company that’s being criticized. The concept of defamation includes libel and slander.
The law of defamation protects each person’s right to self-worth and dignity. Without the law of defamation, individuals and companies will find it hard to regain their reputations.
However, there is a limit to how the law of defamation can be used. The First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of the press and freedom of speech give some degree of protection from defamation lawsuits. That is why truth is widely accepted as a complete defense for all defamation claims. In other words, a scathingly negative review that’s backed by valid evidence and arguments isn’t considered defamation.
The definitions of defamation, slander, and libel may also vary from state to state. You should check your state’s laws and regulations for more information before drafting a cease and desist defamation letter.
Fact vs Opinion
Before you take action against someone for making negative comments about you, you need to find out whether the person actually made defamatory statements about you. There is a legal difference between opinions and defamatory statements.
A defamatory statement must assert, or at least imply, a false fact to be considered defamatory. It must also lower the reputation of the person being defamed in the eyes of a reasonable (i.e., ordinary) person.
In short, you must prove that the person criticizing you:
- Published, spoke, or distributed the statement to one person other than you. This means a private message with defamatory elements is not considered defamation. This also means the statement doesn’t have to reach 500 people in order for it to be defamatory.
- Made a statement that provides enough information for the public to identify you. If insufficient information is provided in the defamatory statement, the statement may not be defamatory. That’s because the public would have to do additional research about you for the statement to have a harmful effect.
- Made a statement that harmed your reputation in some manner.
- Was negligent when they published the statement. In other words, they didn’t bother to do proper research before deciding to defame you.
If the person’s statement doesn’t fit all of the requirements above, courts will consider it an opinion, not a defamatory statement. For example, if someone merely described you as irritating, that is an opinion, not a defamatory statement.
Types of Defamation
Defamation cases can involve defamation per se or defamation per quod.
In defamation per se claims, the harm done to your reputation is so apparent and obvious that damages are presumed. Most defamation per se cases involve accusing someone of sexual misconduct or committing a criminal offense. For example, an untrue statement that you are a murderer would be defamation per se.
However, in defamation per quod cases, the harm isn’t as obvious, so damages aren’t presumed. In many states, defamation per quod refers to any kind of defamation that doesn’t involve alleged sexual misconduct or criminal activity. Most defamation per quod cases require you to provide extensive evidence to prove that a seemingly innocent or harmless statement is defamation if you’re involved in a defamation per quod claim.
Defamation cases also come in two types: libel and slander.
What Is Libel?
Libel is the publication of pictures, writing, cartoons, or any other medium that can expose an individual to public shame, disgrace, hatred, or ridicule. It also includes the publication of materials that can cause the public to hold negative opinions of an individual that are not true.
Most libel charges involve news and media stories that allege dishonesty, immoral conduct, crime, fraud, or stories that attack the subject’s character, causing financial loss. For instance, if a newspaper published a story claiming that a millionaire was a liar and a thief without any grounds, the newspaper can be sued for libel.
Seditious libel involves making false statements about the government, Congress, or president. When it was first established by the Sedition Act of 1798, seditious libel applied to anything false about the government, Congress, or president. However, the Supreme Court later modified the Act so that a statement against a government representative is only considered libel if it’s known to be false, made with malice, or the speaker deliberately ignored the truth when making the claim.
What Is Slander?
Slander is the act of making a false spoken statement to damage a person’s reputation. For example, telling a group of people that someone is a murderer when they aren’t, is slander.
Historically, slander and libel were prosecuted very differently, with libel recognized as more serious. However, many states now treat libel and slander alike and apply the same or similar rules to a defamatory statement regardless of whether it’s oral or written.
Key Differences Between Libel and Slander
The difference between libel and slander lies in the medium used for defamation.
Libel is done through print or digital media, through writing, cartoons, and pictures. In contrast, slander is spoken defamation. Slander usually takes place in person.
Where Could You Find Defamatory Statements?
You can find defamatory statements in:
- Online blogs, vlogs, and social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram
- Newspapers, whether in print or online
- Magazines, whether in print or online
- News media outlets, such as news channels on television, YouTube, and other social media platforms
All of these examples would be considered libel since they involve defamation done through writing, pictures, or cartoons.
You can find slanderous statements wherever people can converse with others or speak to the public
- At the workplace
- At universities and schools
- At a concert
- At any in-person event
Examples of Defamation
Here are some defamation examples:
Examples of libel
- A popular Twitter user posts untrue tweets alleging that another Twitter user is trafficking illegal drugs
- A popular Instagram influencer makes an untrue post with a long text description alleging that another Instagram user is a thief
- A well-known newspaper or magazine makes an unfounded claim that a famous doctor is practicing medicine without a proper license.
Examples of slander
- An employee at a company tells a group of employees a made-up story about how a manager committed tax fraud
- A student tells a group of her friends a made-up story about how a professor verbally threatened her
If you win a defamation case, you may be awarded three types of damages: actual, assumed, and punitive. These damages cover economic losses, mental anguish, emotional distress, and more. However, be aware that in some states you cannot pursue damages for non-economics/non-monetary damages (such as emotional distress) and may only be awarded non-economic damages if you suffered economic damages or other very specific criteria are met.
Actual damages are damages involving cases that are quantifiable. Damages are calculated based on the facts of your case but you may need an economics expert to perform a damages analysis for lost earning capacity or lost business opportunities. Pain and suffering are determined based on what’s fair and reasonable.
Actual damages are meant to restore the defamed party to the position they would’ve been in if the defamation had never happened. Actual damages include all financial losses that the defamed person has suffered as a result of the defamatory act, such as lost earning capacity or income. They can also include non-monetary losses, such as mental anguish, pain and suffering, and emotional distress.
Assumed damages, also known as presumed damages, are damages that the law assumes will always result from the publication of defamatory statements. They are most likely to be given to you even if you can’t prove actual damages. They are not typically available for slander. Courts also don’t have a fixed standard when calculating presumed damages.
Punitive damages are awarded to punish the defamer for their conduct and to prevent such conduct from happening in the future. To get punitive damages, you need to show that your defamer acted with fraud or malice. It’s often hard to show that someone acted with fraud or malice since you have to prove that they had the intent to deceive and hurt you.
What to Do if You Are a Victim of Defamatory Statements?
If you are the victim of defamatory statements, you need to:
- Get a thorough understanding of what is happening, why it’s happening, and gather evidence about the individuals making these statements.
- Send a cease and desist letter for defamation to the offender.
a. A well-written cease and desist letter can stop defamatory statements immediately.
b. It may also prompt the defamer to delete or retract the defamatory statements, which can undo some of the damage done to your reputation.
- If the people defaming you continue to make defamatory statements, file a defamation lawsuit.
- You can use your cease and desist letter as evidence to show that you did ask your defamer to retract or stop their defamatory statements.