The First Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but not all speech is protected. If someone makes a false statement of fact about you that harms your reputation, you can file a civil lawsuit against that person for defamation.
Here's what you need to know if someone is spreading lies about you in public:
Defamation law is a delicate balance between competing interests. The laws protect people from the real harm that flows from people publicly telling lies about them, while still making room for people to freely share opinions, disagree about politics, and make mistakes.
Defamation happens when a person makes a false statement—verbally or in writing—about someone else that damages that person's reputation.
Each state has its own defamation laws, but the basic principles of defamation law are the same in every state.
A plaintiff suing for defamation typically must show that the defendant:
Plaintiffs must also show that the defendant was "at fault" when the statement was made. The legal definition of fault changes based on who was defamed. Private figures must show that the defendant acted "negligently." In other words, the plaintiff must show that the defendant didn't bother to find out if the statement was true or false before making it.
Public figures must show that the defendant acted with "actual malice." Actual malice means that the defendant either knew that the statement was false, or acted with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.
Libel and slander are methods of defamation. Libel is defamation in written form. Slander is defamation that is spoken out loud.
Libel is the publication of a false statement about someone in writing that harms that person's reputation by exposing them to public hatred, scorn, disgrace, ridicule, or shame.
Typical forms of libel include statements published in:
Written statements are libel per se when they are so widely understood to be harmful that they are presumed to be damaging to the plaintiff's reputation. Examples of statements that are libel per se include statements that falsely claim that someone:
Someone can make a libelous statement about a person or business in print or online. Examples of potentially libelous statements include:
Libel is considered in context. If a writer describes an athlete as a "pimp" in a glowing profile in a magazine, it probably isn't libel. In the context of the profile, the writer is likely complimenting the athlete, not accusing the athlete of a crime.
Slander is the communication of a false statement about someone by spoken word or gesture that harms that person's reputation.
Typical forms of slander include verbal statements at a town hall meeting or at a professional conference.
Technology is increasingly blurring the lines between spoken and printed communications. Is a podcast an oral statement (slander) or a written script read out loud (libel)? Are text messages more like a conversation (slander) or a blog post (libel)?
Courts are split on whether to characterize broadcast speech and digital communications as slander or libel. Some lawmakers and legal scholars think courts should get rid of the categories altogether. Most courts now focus on the permanence of the defamatory statement and how widely the statement is distributed. Courts are likely to characterize permanent and far-flung statements as libel, while more fleeting statements that are made to a smaller audience are slander.
Slander, like libel, is divided into two categories: slander and slander per se.
Slander per se is the spoken word version of libel per se—a false statement that is so obviously harmful that damage to a plaintiff's reputation is presumed. Examples of slander per se include false accusations of improper sexual conduct, criminal activity, or bad business dealings.
Plaintiffs making non-per se slander claims have to show that the defendant made a false statement of fact about them to at least one other person and that they suffered "special damages" as a result of the slander. Special damages are evidence that the spoken words resulted in economic harm to the plaintiff, like getting fired or losing customers.
Libel is written defamation. Slander is spoken defamation.
Courts typically consider libel to be more harmful than slander because written statements last longer than spoken statements and can be distributed more widely.
Technology is blurring the libel/slander distinction. But the biggest difference between libel and slander—other than the means of communication—is the additional requirement that plaintiffs alleging slander have to show special damages. A slander per se claim doesn't require the plaintiff to prove special damages.
Defamation is a civil wrong (called a "tort") in every state. A few states still have criminal defamation laws on the books, but prosecutions are rare.
The consequences of defamation vary from state to state. Plaintiffs who successfully sue for defamation are typically entitled to monetary compensation for damages, including:
Pain and suffering in a defamation case typically includes compensation for mental anguish, emotional distress, loss of standing in the community, loss of enjoyment of life, anxiety, appetite loss, sleep disturbance, humiliation, and shame.
Defamation claims are complicated and hard to prove because defamation law aims to strike a balance between allowing people to protect their reputations and allowing the free exchange of information, ideas, and opinions.
Common defenses to defamation claims include:
Learn more about privileges and defenses in defamation cases.
If someone is spreading lies about you, you have a right to safeguard your character and reputation. Talk to a lawyer about your legal options. A lawyer can help you figure out if you have a libel or slander claim and if, when, and where to file a lawsuit.
Learn more about working with a lawyer. You can also connect with a lawyer directly from this page for free.