Defamation Of Character: Examples and Remedies (2024)

Sarah Edwards

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Reviewed By Adam Ramirez, J.D.

Editor

Read in 4 mins

Injuries can take several forms. Bodily injuries happen when you suffer physical harm. Mental injuries can result from intentionally or inadvertently inflicted traumatic experiences. Reputational injuries occur when someone says something that casts you in a negative light. If the statement is false, it may constitute defamation of character.

You can pursue a legal claim for losses that result from defamation. But suing for defamation of character is not easy. The First Amendment’s free speech guarantee limits the statements that might constitute defamation. This defamation of character definition established by the U.S. Supreme Court relies on both the statement’s content and the speaker’s state of mind when making it.

What Is Defamation of Character?

Defamation happens when someone damages your reputation by making a false statement about you. This legal claim requires proof of several elements, including:

False Statement of Fact

Defamation only happens when the statement purports to be factual. It does not cover opinions. You can test for a factual statement by asking whether you can objectively measure the truth or falseness of the statement.

For example, the statement “the products tasted disgusting” constitutes an opinion because you cannot establish its truth or falsity. However, the statement “the products contained toxic chemicals” constitutes a statement of fact that you can prove as either true or false.

Uttered or Published

The statement must have been uttered or published in a way that it was ascertainable by a third party. Common law traditionally separated defamation into libel and slander. Under this distinction, a written statement constituted libel, while an oral statement was slander.

This distinction no longer matters. Instead, the only issue is whether the statement was made to a third party, including by:

  • Saying it in person or over the phone
  • Stating it in an online video or podcast
  • Publishing it in a book
  • Writing it in an email
  • Posting it on social media

Conversely, if a statement is not publicly accessible, it is not defamatory. Thus, you can usually write something in your private journal without worrying about defamation.

Knowledge of Its Falsity

If courts imposed defamation liability freely, they would chill free speech in violation of the First Amendment. As a result, courts limit the scope of defamation claims to balance a speaker’s First Amendment rights against a victim’s right to protect their reputation.

One way courts protect speakers’ First Amendment rights is to require proof of their state of mind. This requirement prevents someone from being held liable for simply repeating something they heard.

Instead, a private figure can recover compensation if the speaker acted negligently, recklessly, or intentionally while a public figure can only pursue a claim if the speaker acted recklessly or intentionally.

In these cases, negligence means the speaker failed to exercise reasonable care in determining whether the statement was true or false. Recklessness means the speaker willfully blinded themselves to the possibility that the statement was false. A speaker utters something intentionally if they know the statement is false.

For example, suppose that a speaker says someone “ran over a bicyclist.” Negligence requires proof that the speaker did not care whether it was true when they stated it. Recklessness means they could have verified the allegation by searching court records but chose not to.

Reputational Damage

The victim must suffer damage to their reputation. Some states apply a doctrine called defamation per se. Under this doctrine, some statements are so harmful that a court will presume the damage. Examples of statements that are per se defamatory include accusations that the victim did any of the following:

  • Performed a criminal act
  • Contracted a loathsome disease
  • Is unfit to perform their job or profession
  • Committed adultery or sexual misconduct

In other cases, the victim must prove the statement diminished their reputation or character. Evidence of these losses might include losing clients or being shunned in social settings.

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What Are the Grounds for Defamation of Character Lawsuits?

In the age of social media and the 24-hour news cycle, misstatements and falsehoods abound. Many of these are harmless and will not provide a basis for a defamation claim. However, some will damage your reputation enough that you can pursue a claim. Some common grounds for defamation of character lawsuits include the following:

Deliberate Attack

People may become targets of campaigns designed to ruin their reputations. For example, someone might make a false accusation against a local clergyman of sexual abuse. The clergyman might have a claim against the person who started the attack and others who repeated it without verifying it.

Bandwagon Effect

Viral attacks spread far because everyone jumps on board, often for philosophical or political reasons. Thus, a person may start a false rumor that a politician was a slumlord responsible for injuries on their premises. Others may repeat it because they oppose the politician rather than the allegation’s truth.

Contact ConsumerShield to Learn More

ConsumerShield helps consumers understand their rights. We evaluate your case and refer you to a lawyer who can provide advice and guidance. Contact us for a free case evaluation to learn how we can help you.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Defamation is a civil wrong in which a speaker makes a false statement about someone else. As a result, the speaker damages the person’s character and reputation. The statement may be written or spoken. Lies about certain subjects do not require proof of losses because they are so damaging.

  • Yes. Defamation happens when a speaker makes a false statement of fact about someone to a third person. Private figures must show the speaker acted negligently, recklessly, or intentionally. Public figures must prove the speaker made the statement recklessly or knowingly. Finally, the statement must damage the subject.

  • You sue for defamation the same as any other personal injury. You should gather information about the statement and its publication. Determine the losses your reputation and character suffered. Finally, consult a lawyer to discuss the situation and whether you can meet the elements to prove defamation of character.

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