"Defamation of character" is a catch-all term for any statement that hurts someone's reputation. Written defamation is called "libel," while spoken defamation is called "slander." Because written statements last longer than spoken statements, most courts, juries, and insurance companies consider libel more harmful than slander.
Defamation is not a crime in most states, but it is a "tort" (a civil wrong, rather than a criminal wrong). The person who has been defamed (the "plaintiff") can sue the person who did the defaming (the "defendant") for damages.
Defamation law tries to balance competing interests: On the one hand, someone shouldn't be able to ruin your life by telling lies about you; on the other hand, people should be able to speak freely without fear of litigation over every insult, disagreement, or mistake. Political and social debate is important in a free society, and we obviously don't all share the same opinions or beliefs. For example, political opponents often reach opposite conclusions from the same facts, and editorial cartoonists often exaggerate facts to make their point.
Defamation happens when a person makes a false statement—verbally or in writing—about someone else that damages that person's reputation. Defamation laws vary from state to state, but the basic principles of defamation law are the same in every state.
A plaintiff suing for defamation typically must show all of the following:
Let's take a look at each of these defamation claim elements in detail.
In the context of defamation law, "published" doesn't necessarily mean the statement was printed in a book or magazine. A defamatory statement is published when the defendant says or shows the statement to anyone other than the plaintiff. Slanderous statements can be published in a speech, at a town hall meeting, or during cocktail party chatter. Libelous statements can be published in a newspaper, book, email, text message, tweet, or social media post.
Only false statements of fact can be defamatory. Even terribly mean or disparaging statements aren't defamatory if they are true. Most opinions don't count as defamation because they can't be proved to be objectively false. For example, when a book reviewer writes, "This is the worst book I've read all year," she's not defaming the author, she's stating her opinion about the book.
The statement must be "injurious." Since the purpose of defamation law is to compensate people for damage to their reputations, defamation plaintiffs must show how their reputations were hurt by the false statements. A defamatory statement is injurious if it, for example, gets you fired, causes you to lose customers, causes you to be shunned by your friends, or leads to you being harassed online.
Some categories of false statements—called libel per se or slander per se—are so widely understood to be harmful that they are presumed to be injuries. Examples include statements that falsely claim that someone:
Finally, to qualify as a defamatory statement, the offending statement must be "unprivileged." If someone makes a false statement about you, but the statement is "privileged," you can't sue that person for defamation. Lawmakers decide which types of speech are privileged so that speakers in certain situations aren't constrained by worries that they will be sued for defamation. Examples of privileged statements include statements made during judicial proceedings, by high government officials, and by legislators during legislative debates.
The public has a right to criticize the people who govern and influence them, so public figures have less protection from defamation than private individuals. Public figures must show that they were defamed with actual malice. In other words, they must show that the person who defamed them made the false statement knowing it was false, or with reckless disregard for the truth. Public figures include politicians, movie stars, professional athletes, and celebrities.
Private figures only need to show that the person who defamed them acted negligently (carelessly) when making the false statement.
No two defamation cases are exactly the same, so it's impossible to put a dollar amount on a typical defamation case. But damages in a defamation case generally include compensation for:
Plaintiffs in some states might also be able to collect punitive damages if the defendant's conduct was outrageously bad. Punitive damages are meant to punish defendants for appalling behavior, rather than compensate plaintiffs for their losses.
Defamation laws protect people from the real harm that untrue statements can cause, while still allowing people to speak freely about important topics. It's a complicated area of law that changes all the time as technology changes how people communicate. If you want to learn more, check out Nolo's collection of articles about Defamation, Slander, and Libel.
If someone is spreading false statements about you, talk to a lawyer about your options. A lawyer can answer your questions and help you decide if, when, and where to file a lawsuit. Learn more about hiring a lawyer. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.