Dealing with Defamation of Character

Written by J. Hirby and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

In the United States, freedom of speech is widely heralded as having no limits; this does not mean, however, that individuals or business entities can engage in defamatory speech without suffering consequences. In most common law jurisdictions, people have a right to feel reasonably safe about managing their reputation, and thus they can often find civil recourse against those who attempt to defame them with lies and deception.

Understanding Defamation of Character

False statements that are intended to tarnish the good reputation of an individual or a business entity may be considered defamation of character. Such statements can be produced in either written or spoken form. When defamatory statements are written, they are called libel; when they are spoken, they are called slander. There must be an element of malice or negativity attached to the false statements; for example, making up stories about a man who has extra-marital affairs behind his wife's back with the intention of breaking up the marriage is clearly defamation of character.

Filing a Civil Complaint for Libel or Slander

People or business entities affected by slander or libel can file a complaint in civil court and may even be able to ask for monetary compensation; however, character defamation cases tend to be very complex and can be difficult to manage. When reviewing cases related to libel and slander, the court has to tread very carefully so that the First Amendment is not challenged.

When libelous and slanderous statements are made in public, the affected party should seek a retraction before filing a complaint in court. If there is evidence of the alleged defamer refusing to retract his or her statements, it would be easier to win the case in court. As to compensation, the court must weight the reasonable amount of injury; for example, if a politician feels defamed by statements that attempt to connect her with members of alleged criminal organizations, the court will consider that people who are in the public eye by virtue of election or appointment should expect that criticism is bound to go astray from time to time.

In most cases involving defamation of character, the court will seek a resolution that is both uncomplicated and respectful of the First Amendment. This could mean accepting a statement of retraction from the respondent to be published in the newspaper of record.

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