Libel law

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According to the Student Press Law Center (SPLC), libel "is the publication - in words, photos, pictures or symbols - of false statements of fact that harm another's reputation. (Libel is a form of defamation. Slander is the spoken version of defamation.) Reprinting or re-broadcasting a libelous statement made by someone else (such as a quote or a letter to the editor) can also subject a publication to a libel lawsuit. However, if a statement is true, it cannot be the basis of a successful libel claim."

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How to recognize libel: a quick and easy guide[edit]

brought to you by the Student Press Law Center

Libel has four basic elements, according to the SPLC: publication, identification, harm, and fault. Each of those points must be proven in order for a libel claim to stand up in court.

Publication means a statement is communicated to someone other than the subject of said statement. For example, if the statement "John cheats on his wife" was published in a newspaper, it could be considered libelous. But a statement need not appear in a newspaper or other document to be considered "published." A statement's appearance on a computer screen in a newsroom where others might see it could be libelous.

Identification is fairly straightforward. Something can be libelous if the subject of the statement can clearly be identified by it. This can be countered by altering the identity of the subject so that he or she is not recognizable and also does not resemble a third party. In addition, legal precedent suggests that a group of people cannot be defamed so long as the defamatory statement cannot reasonably be interpreted as referring to a specific individual within the group. Corporate entities, as well as business and religious organizations can also be defamed, as defamation can harm their ability conduct affairs in their community.

Harm is also fairly simple. Statements that seriously shame or otherwise damage a reputation or cause others to do so are considered harmful. Here is the SPLC's quick list of types of statements that could cause harm to one's reputation:

  1. Statements regarding improper sexual conduct. (For example, printing that an unmarried student is pregnant.)
  2. Statements that associate someone with a vile disease.
  3. Statements that accuse someone of illegal behavior.
  4. Statements that hurt someone's livelihood.
  5. Statements that allege racial or religious bigotry.

Use caution if you plan to print or otherwise publish statements like these.

Finally, we come to fault. A reporter can be found "at fault" for libel if they fail to do something or do something beyond what a reasonable reporter would do to verify information before publication. Public figures will have a harder time proving fault than non-public figures.

Who is a public figure or public official?[edit]

A public official, according to the Supreme Court, is someone who has a substantial amount of control over governmental affairs. A public figure is either a celebrity whose name has become a household word or a person who has voluntarily stepped into a role of leadership in a particular controversy.

In the case of New York Times Company v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), the Supreme Court held that in order for a public figure/official to prove libel, they must prove malicious intent. Malice is the idea that whoever published the libelous statement did so knowingly and intentionally or was reckless in fact-checking before publication.

But for private citizens - that is everyone who is not a public figure/official - they need only prove a reporter's negligence to prove libel.

How to defend against a libel charge[edit]

  1. Consent - If a person consents to the publication of a libelous statement, they cannot later change their mind and sue. However, complications can arise if you get consent from someone aged 17 or younger, in that there is debate over whether they can give valid consent.
  2. Truth is a defense against libel, though it must be proven. In many cases, the burden to prove the falseness of a statement is actually on the person suing, rather than the publication or reporter.
  3. If a publication obtains information from "fair and accurate" accounts of public proceedings, even if the information is later proven false. The definitions of official public proceedings may vary by state. To qualify for the privilege, information must be obtained from a record or proceeding recognized by the state as "official", the media report must be fair and accurate (A "fair" report is one that is balanced and presented in context), and the source of the statement should be clearly noted in the media report.
  4. Statements purely of opinion cannot be libelous, though simply using the phrases "in my opinion ..." or "allegedly ..." are not enough to qualify as pure opinion. The test, instead, is whether a statement can be proven true or false. An opinion, by its definition, cannot be proven either true or false and cannot, therefore, be libelous.

For more information[edit]

Here are some useful libel links: