Issues surrounding Internet libel and the boundaries of free speech have been around since early users accessed text-only bulletin board systems by means of dial-up modems. Back then it was difficult for American courts to make sure that the First Amendment and free speech were not compromised by civil claims that related to a nascent, global system of electronic communications. The Internet has come a long way since then, but online libel and free speech remain thorny issues.
What Constitutes Internet Libel
Libel falls within the defamation of character spectrum. Slander essentially refers to defamatory speech; libel is the written equivalent. When it comes to characterizing libelous statements, it is important to remember that they must be presented as lies. This means that the statements to complain about must not be mere opinions; they must be false statements of fact written with the intention of defaming an individual or a business entity.
The bottom line is that the plaintiff must present both the truth and the intent to defame in court in order to prevail. Since Internet libel lawsuits tend to be highly complex affairs, it is important to remember that assertions of fact must not be conflated with opinions.
Another aspect to remember is that public figures are held to a higher standard when they file civil complaints for Internet libel.
Filing the Lawsuit
The first step should be to consult with a law firm that specializes in matters pertaining to online speech. If there is a strong chance of the case going to appellate or even Supreme Court review, the plaintiff must budget accordingly. In most cases, circuit court will be the initial venue. Attorneys will review the potential case to see if issues of statute of limitations or jurisdiction may further complicate matters.
Discovery must be gathered systematically and in a way that follows rules of civil procedure. The burden of proof will fall heavily upon the plaintiff, which means that potential settlements could be difficult to reach. For this reason, many law firms will prefer to litigate before a jury. Character witnesses tend to be very helpful in this regard; after all, the plaintiff is trying to assert a certain character that the defendant has allegedly tried to tarnish.
In some jurisdictions, a public retraction from the defendants may put an end to litigation. In fact, the court is likely to move towards a retraction for the purpose of protecting the nature of free speech.