Defamation Law Made Simple

Learn the basics of slander and libel—the rules about who can say what without getting into legal hot water.

By , Attorney
Updated by Stacy Barrett, Attorney · UC Law San Francisco

"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 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 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.

How Do You Prove Defamation?

Defamation happens when a person or business makes a false statement—verbally or in writing—about someone that damages their reputation. Defamation laws vary from state to state, but the basic elements of defamation are the same in every state.

A plaintiff suing for defamation typically must show all of the following:

  • The defendant published a statement about the plaintiff.
  • The statement was false.
  • The statement was harmful.
  • The statement was unprivileged.

The Statement Must Be Published

In the context of defamation law, "published" doesn't necessarily mean the statement was printed in a book or magazine, or posted online. 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.

The Statement Must Be False

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 Harmful

The statement in question must be "injurious" (harmful). 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:

  • committed a crime
  • has an infectious disease (often a sexually transmitted infection)
  • lacks professional integrity or competence, or
  • engaged in improper sexual conduct.

The Statement Must Be "Unprivileged"

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 limited 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.

Examples of Defamation

Defamation can take many forms. In 2022, an American teenager named Hans Niemann defeated Magnus Carlsen, the world's best chess player, in a tournament with a $350,000 prize. Mr. Carlsen responded by accusing Niemann of cheating.

Niemann then filed a $100 million defamation lawsuit against Carlsen, Chess.com, and Hikaru Nakamura, another top chess player who amplified the cheating allegations on his popular Twitch channel. Niemann's lawyers wrote in their complaint that Niemann is suing to "recover from the devastating damages that defendants inflicted upon his reputation, career, and life by egregiously defaming him."

Carlsen's lawyers moved to dismiss the lawsuit, claiming, among other things, that the allegedly defamatory statements were protected by privilege and that he was voicing his sincerely held opinions, not facts.

In August 2023, Niemann reached an out-of-court settlement with Carlsen, Chess.com, and Nakamura. The terms of the settlement are confidential, but Carlsen acknowledged that there was "no determinative evidence" that Niemann cheated in their game and said he is willing to play him in future events. Niemann is allowed to play again on Chess.com and will be treated no differently from any other player.

The Niemann case is an example of a work-related defamation claim. Other examples of potential defamation include:

  • falsely accusing a classmate of sexual misconduct on social media
  • falsely accusing a restaurant owner of causing you food poisoning in a Yelp review, and
  • writing a letter to the editor falsely claiming that the president of the parent-teacher association stole money from the school.

Courts look carefully at the context of a potentially defamatory statement as well as its substance to decide whether it's an opinion or a factual statement.

Don't Delay—You Must Comply With the Statute of Limitations

Each state sets a deadline—called the "statute of limitations"—for filing different kinds of civil lawsuits. Most states allow plaintiffs somewhere between one to three years from the time the defamatory statement was made to get their defamation lawsuits filed.

If you miss the deadline to file your claim, the court will almost certainly dismiss your case and you'll miss your chance to clear your name and get compensation for your damaged reputation and lost opportunities.

Learn about defamation, libel, and slander statute of limitations.

Defenses to Defamation Lawsuits

Defamation claims are complicated and hard to prove because defamation laws have to strike a balance between allowing people to protect their reputations and allowing the free exchange of information, ideas, and opinions.

You can defend yourself against a defamation lawsuit if the statement you made was:

  • true
  • an opinion
  • privileged (see above), or
  • retracted.

Learn more about privileges and defenses in defamation cases.

Should You File a Defamation Lawsuit?

Defamation lawsuits are difficult to prove. A landmark study, called "The Iowa Research Project," reviewed almost every libel case between 1974 and 1984 and found that about 90% of plaintiffs lost in court, but roughly 90% of the plaintiffs who lost said that the lawsuit "accomplished something."

In other words, if you've suffered financial and social harm because someone is spreading lies about it, it might be worth filing a defamation lawsuit even if you don't end up winning a big money judgment at the end of the case.

Talk to a lawyer so you can get the facts you need to decide whether pursuing a defamation lawsuit is worth the emotional and financial toll it will take on you. A lawyer can answer your questions, help you figure out how much your defamation claim might be worth, and review the pros and cons of going to court. Learn more about the timeline of a defamation claim.

Public Figures Have More to Prove

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.

On the defendant's of a defamation case, the media and others who write and report on public figures are often entitled to extra protection from libel claims. Learn more about defamation, public figures, and the media.

How Much Is a Defamation Case Worth?

No two defamation cases are 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:

  • lost income (past and future)
  • lost earning capacity
  • lost employment benefits
  • medical bills for treatment for mental anguish (past and future), and
  • pain and suffering (like mental anguish, emotional distress, loss of standing in the community, loss of enjoyment of life, anxiety, and sleep loss).

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.

In 2022, the actor Johnny Depp sued his ex-wife Amber Heard for defamation after she wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post about domestic violence and referred to herself as "a public figure representing domestic abuse." The jury sided with Depp and awarded him $10.35 million. Depp's multimillion-dollar award was based, in part, on high-paying acting roles he claimed to have missed out on because of Heard's defamatory statements. Heard filed an appeal, citing "errors" made by the court, but eventually agreed to pay Depp $1 million and drop her appeal.

Not all defamation cases end in blockbuster awards. Some end with verdicts in favor of the defendant. Others end with a jury finding that a statement was defamatory, but declining to award any damages. For example, a father sued his son for defamation during a grandparent custody dispute. The father said the son falsely accused him of physical and sexual abuse to damage his reputation and hurt his business. The jury found that the son's statements were defamatory and untrue, but declined to award any damages. (Cesare v. Cesare, 2011 WL 2292222 (Pa.Com.Pl. 2011).)

As you can see, defamation awards vary widely. The only way to get an accurate sense of how much your defamation claim might be worth is to talk to a lawyer.

Do I Need to Hire a Defamation Lawyer?

A defamation case isn't like a simple car accident claim that you might be able to handle yourself. They often involve complex legal issues and may require expert witnesses to weigh in on damages. Having a legal expert on your side can make all the difference.

Defamation cases tend to be emotionally charged. A lawyer can offer an objective perspective when things get heated and you need to make rational decisions about how to proceed.

Learn more about hiring a lawyer

Next Steps

Defamation laws protect people from the actual 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, especially as technology changes how people communicate.

To get started with your defamation claim:

A lawyer can answer your questions and help you decide if, when, and where to file a lawsuit.

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