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The Basics of Libel and Slander

"Defamation" is a false statement communicated to someone else that is intended to damage a person’s reputation or good name. Defamation through writing is called "libel," whereas spoken defamation is called "slander."
To recover for libel, the written false statement must be
  • "Defamatory," that is, harmful to one’s reputation as opposed to being just offensive or insulting
  • Published to at least one other person
  • About the subject specifically
  • Made with the intent to fault the subject
Generally, being described to others as "ugly" may be offensive or insulting, but it does not damage one’s reputation, but if the subject of the statement is a supermodel who makes her living based on her looks, being described as "ugly" by the head of a modeling agency could be defamatory.
Different standards of fault apply, depending on the subject of the alleged defamation. A public official or figure, such as a politician, celebrity or some other well-known person, will be required to prove defamation with "actual malice." It will have to be established that the person making the defamatory remarks knew that the statement he or she was making was false or recklessly disregarded whether or not it was false. For those who are not public figures, only negligence must be proved, in other words, that the person making the defamatory statements failed to act with due care considering the circumstances.
Proof of actual harm to the reputation is not needed to collect damages for slander if the defamatory statement
  • Affects a business, trade or profession
  • Implies that the subject committed a crime
  • Leads to the conclusion that the subject has a loathsome disease
  • Suggests that the subject is somehow sexually impure 
In other cases, proof of actual damages must be established in order to collect for slanderous behavior.
Getting Ready to Go to Court
In cases of libel by a public media such as a newspaper, TV station, or magazine, a retraction should first be demanded in order to collect damages in court. If the defamation is ongoing, the next step is to write a "cease and desist" letter demanding that the defamation stop immediately. Oftentimes, a slander case is difficult to prove, as a verbal statement isn't lasting. It's a good idea to keep a log of when and where the slander occurs, and exactly what was said. Names and phone numbers of witnesses should also be collected while the situation is fresh in everyone’s minds.
Defenses to Libel
In order to defend against a defamation claim, the speaker or writer may be exonerated by proving that the statements made were true, that what was said was an opinion rather than a statement of fact, or that the statements were privileged such that the interest in communicating the statement outweighed the defamed person's interest in protecting his reputation. The privilege defense usually applies to reporters covering government activities, those reporting questionable activities to the authorities, and persons sharing a common interest.
Defamation laws vary greatly by state but are founded on the common background of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, as interpreted by the United States Supreme Court.