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Defamation lawsuits: The most misunderstood area of the law

Freedom of speech is an integral part of American society and a constitutional right. However, false statements against another individual can lead to a civil defamation lawsuit. Defamation is a blanket term that covers any statement that hurts a person’s reputation or good name. Defamation law encompasses more than simply hurt feelings as a result of expressed opinions.

Slander, slander per se or libel?

In the case of slander a defamatory statement is made to another person. As a result of the statement the individual suffered harmful damages, such as a reduction in business, sales or termination. In a slander per se situation the damages are presumed. Statements alleging a person has a communicable disease or committed a criminal offense are examples of slander per se. Slander is often considered less serious than libel since spoken words carry less weight and have relevance over a shorter period of time.

Libel occurs when the statement is written and published, exposing other people to the statement. The evolution of social media platforms has made publishing defamatory statements easy and instantaneous. In libel cases the legal presumption is that the statements will remain available to readers and can continue to harm a person’s reputation. In Virginia, both slander and libel are a Class 3 misdemeanor.

Requirements for a defamation lawsuit

In order to prove defamation has occurred there are certain required elements.

  • A spoken statement: A statement was written or spoken.
  • Publication: The written statement was published and seen by a third party.
  • Injury was caused: The statement resulted in injury or harm to the subject’s reputation.
  • Falsified: The statement was false. Opinions are subjective and not considered false and true statements, even if harmful to the subject.
  • The statement was unprivileged: In general privileged information includes making a good-faith report to law enforcement and statements made in the court room during litigation. Statements not in that category are unprivileged and eligible for a defamation lawsuit.

False statements can result in harmful damages for the injured individual. Also, a defamation lawsuit can have unintended consequences, such as making that statement more widely publicized, intensifying the harm. While free speech and uncensored discourse have long been celebrated, truth and a bit of tact should be the preferred route.

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