From blogs to Facebook posts, Twitter to text messages, a lot of information is flying around these days, from more sources than ever before -- not all of them reputable. And many stories spread incredibly quickly (they don't call it "viral" technology for nothing). So it's important to understand when gossip and rants can cross the legal line and become "defamation", the legal word for a statement that causes damage to someone's reputation.
Defamation comes in two forms: libel (written) and slander (verbal). In this age of the handheld everything, "written" isn't limited to paper and pen, but can refer to an email, text message, blog post, and even a Tweet (as Courtney Love learned recently).
Whether it's written or verbal, a lawsuit for defamation usually requires the plaintiff -- the subject of a statement -- to show that something spoken or written was also published (heard or read by a third party), false (i.e. not an opinion), and somehow injurious to the plaintiff's reputation. To learn more about these elements of defamation in more detail, see Can I Say That? Defamation Law Made Simple.
So, an opinion that's texted or Twittered, no matter how vulgar or shocking, probably can't be the subject of a defamation lawsuit. You can probably say "Person A is the ugliest, dumbest person I've ever met" and not be liable for defamation, because you're voicing an opinion. But if you say "Person A cheated on her tax return," you're opening the defamation door because you've offered up an accusation that can be disproved.
Especially where gossip is concerned, certain people will have a harder time bringing a successful lawsuit for defamation. That's because people in the public eye -- including celebrities, politicians, and other public figures -- enjoy the lowest form of legal protection against defamation, by virtue of their (sometimes perceived) influence and position in society. People in the public spotlight usually have to show that a defamatory statement was made with reckless disregard for the truth (on top of the other elements mentioned above).
When it comes to straight slander -- which requires only a verbal communication rather than a statement that is fixed in writing or on a screen -- the legal rules can be even more tricky, and the practical reality is that slander lawsuits are usually only filed against defendants who have money. As FindLaw Writ columnist Julie Hilden points out: "Slander litigation - rather than having a focal document, like the article that is the centerpiece of a libel case - [can] quickly become a free-for-all of [contradiction]. In the end, the only thing that really prevents slander suits from overrunning the legal system, is the shallow pockets of most of the defendants whom hurt and angry plaintiffs would otherwise sue for slander."
- Can I Say That? Defamation Law Made Simple (FindLaw)
- Defamation, Libel, and Slander (FindLaw)
- The Slipperiness of Slander: The Suit Against Paris Hilton (FindLaw's Writ)
- What Does a Person Have to Prove to Win a Slander or Libel Claim? (provided by The Law Offices of Scott M. MIller)
- Courtney Love Tweets Herself Into a Legal Hole (FindLaw's Injured)
- Can I Get Fired for Posting on Twitter or Facebook? (FindLaw's Common Law)
- Woody Allen vs. American Apparel: Lawsuit Limits When Reputation is On the Line (FindLaw's Injured)