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Defamation, Libel, and Slander: Background

The law of defamation protects a person's reputation. That means protecting their good name against communications that are false and derogatory. Defamation claims consist of two torts: libel and slander. The main difference between the two types of defamation is the form in which the defamatory statement occurs. Libel consists of any defamation that can be seen, most typically in writing. Slander consists of oral (spoken word) defamatory communications. The elements of libel and slander are nearly identical to one another.

English Origins

Historically, there was much less protection for speech (including for the press and for publishers) than we enjoy today. History books are full of examples of the following for making (arguably) derogatory and false statements:

  • Censorship
  • Fines
  • More severe punishments

The earliest ancestors to our modern defamation laws come from English courts beginning in the early modern period (approximately around 1500 C.E.).

At this time, the legal terms governing slander focused on oral statements that were demeaning to others. By the 1500s, English courts treated slander actions as those for damages. Libel developed differently, however. During Elizabethan times, English printers were required to be licensed by and give a bond to the government. This licensing policy was created because the printed word was believed to be a threat to political stability. Libel included any criticism of the English government, and a person who committed libel committed a crime.

Zenger's Case

This English legal background carried over to North America when colonists began to arrive. One of the more famous and influential defamation cases in early American history is Zenger's Case (1735). John Zenger published a weekly newspaper that was critical of the royally appointed governor of New York. The governor had Zenger arrested and tried for seditious libel. After considerable uproar, a jury acquitted Zenger of the charge. Many legal historians cite Zenger's Case. It is known for establishing the American legal principle that truth is a defense against a charge of libel and slander. Before Zenger's Case, the truth was considered to be irrelevant.

The history of Zenger's Case was remembered for years to come. Freedom of speech and freedom of the press became a major concern political concern at the time of the American Revolutionary War. Both of these rights, of course, were included in the Bill of Rights at the beginning of the republic.

The Sedition Act

The development of defamation law continued with the founding of the United States. During the presidency of John Adams, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798. This law made it a crime to criticize the government. Several Democratic-Republican politicians were convicted of sedition before the act expired. Congress and the courts eventually abandoned this approach to libel, and the law of libel is now focused on recovery of damages in civil cases.

Modern Libel Laws: New York Times v. Sullivan

Beginning with the landmark decision in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that the law of defamation has a constitutional dimension. Under this case and others that followed, the Court has evolved its decisions. It has balanced individual interests in reputation with the interests of free speech in society. This approach has altered the rules governing libel and slander. This is especially true where a communication is about a public official rather than a private individual. It is also relevant where the communication is about a matter of public concern.

To protect the First Amendment right to freedom of speech, the Supreme Court has made it difficult for public figures or public officials to claim defamation of character. This is true even when a defamatory comment can be proven to be a falsity. Unlike a private figure, a celebrity or famous person has to prove that a defendant acted with malice. That means they had intent to do harm or had reckless disregard for the truth when they committed the civil wrong.

Civil Lawsuits in the Age of Social Media

While the elements of defamation typically involve false statements that harm someone's reputation, personal injury cases containing defamation causes of action touch upon a complicated area of law.

Posting critical statements, photographs, or videos about others can be a risky play in the internet age. Personal injury attorneys will be quick to jump on someone who disparages their clients unless they can show the statements are true—truth is the absolute defense to defamation.

Additionally, a false statement of fact can be considered defamation, but not if a reasonable person might take it as a mere opinion. Some defamatory statements are also protected by either qualified privilege or absolute privilege, which are valid defenses.

Problems With Defamation? Speak With a Lawyer

Harming someone with words is an actionable claim with different standards. If you or someone you know has been injured because of someone else's written or verbal words, you should promptly speak with a personal injury defamation attorney. Your state will have a filing deadline known as a statute of limitations, after which you will not be able to sue — so act quickly.

Learn more by getting legal advice from a defamation attorney in your area. A defamation attorney is a type of personal injury attorney that handles these claims. A personal injury lawyer can help you recover general and actual damages, punitive damages, and special damages. Monetary damages for lost income, medical bills, and emotional distress may be available in defamation suits.

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