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What is a Defamation Lawsuit?

By A. French
Updated May 17, 2024
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What constitutes defamation varies among jurisdictions, but in the United States generally, a defamation lawsuit is a court action based upon the allegation that the defendant damaged the plaintiff's reputation by way of slander or libel. Slander refers to spoken defamation, but it can also entail an impermanent public statement, such as sign language. Libel refers to defamation via a printed medium or made in some other type of fixed form. In most cases a true statement can't constitute libel or slander, even if it damages a plaintiff's reputation.

In the US, defamation lawsuits, like all lawsuits, are a matter of civil law, not criminal law. While most causes of action for defamation are settled out of court, those that do proceed to judgment have two possible remedies — injunction or monetary damages. Many factors govern whether a defamation lawsuit will succeed at trial, but some generally accepted standards have evolved through rulings over the years.

A plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit, typically must establish that the defendant made a false, defamatory statement about the plaintiff. That statement must have been heard by others and caused injury to plaintiff's reputation. It's important to note that statements of opinion usually cannot constitute defamation; opinion statements are protected as free speech under the First Amendment.

A plaintiff must also establish that the offending statement was made in an unprivileged environment. Statements in some forums, such as a court proceeding, are not typically actionable as slander or libel. That is because court is viewed as a privileged environment. A false statement made in court, however, may be prosecuted criminally as perjury.

Official proceedings, such as meetings of elected officials, may also constitute privileged environments. This is called the fair report privilege. It exists on the premise that what is said in these forums is automatically of public interest. That means that if a city councilman tells a defamatory lie in an official meeting, a news reporter is protected in giving an account of the occurrence.

A defamation plaintiff usually must show that the offending statement caused harm. This is generally easiest to prove if the harm is quantifiable and affected the defendant's community standing and earning power. Some claims, however, are widely considered damaging or defamatory per se. That means that if the statement's occurrence is established, the damage may not have to be proved. Examples include false assertions that someone committed a crime, has an abhorrent disease, is mentally unfit to do business or has engaged in sexual misconduct.

Not every plaintiff is viewed as equal through the lens of defamation law. If a defendant successfully argues that a plaintiff is a public figure, the plaintiff's burden of proof in a defamation lawsuit becomes heavier than it would be in a claim against a private person. To establish that libel has been committed against a public figure, for example, the plaintiff usually must also show that the defendant exhibited actual malice. That is a legal standard requiring that one of two conditions existed when the offending statement occurred. The defendant must either have known it was false, or the defendant must have exhibited reckless disregard for whether the statement was false.

Defamation law is a highly specialized area. Many aspects of it vary from state to state in the U.S. Even broader variations exist internationally. Experts advise that prospective plaintiffs and defendants consult an attorney with experience in the finer points.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon360003 — On Dec 22, 2013

If a COO of a company is telling my boss and a few other people at work that I threatened to run someone over with my car (which is a lie), is that defamation?

By amypollick — On May 19, 2010

@NoelC: I don't know that this is a defamation case. It may be a screwed-up paperwork case. It sounds like there was a clerical error somewhere, perhaps a serial number or name mix-up, and that got on your record.

If I were you, I'd request a copy of my service record. It's possible you can spot the discrepancy there. Say, for instance, you know you were stationed in Texas in 2005, and they had you in military prison at oh, New Jersey. That wouldn't make sense, even for the military.

I'm not sure who you would need to talk to, but you need to get to the person who can have this expunged from your record.

I'm betting this was a "fat-finger" mistake, not deliberate defamation by the U.S. Army. Even if someone told a company you had been in prison, they're probably just going from what they have on some erroneous record. But you've got to get hold of your records to find out for sure.

You might want to contact someone in the JAG office and see about getting this done. In the meantime, can you contact your commanding officer and ask him/her for a letter of character reference, also affirming that you were never in military prison? It might make all the difference. Good luck.

By NoelC — On May 19, 2010

I find myself with a college education and plenty of military experience to obtain a job, even in the hiring crisis.

I served six years in the US Army and received an honorable discharge not too long ago. I have placed so many applications, i don't think there are any more places to apply.

Well, i finally get a couple of letters in the mail, stating why i didn't get the jobs. all the letters are stating that i failed to disclose that i went to a military prison in 2005.

I would remember going to prison in 2005, and it never happened. At the same time i am looking at my DD214 (discharge paper) and it shows plain as day that i received an honorable discharge in Jan 2006. Would someone please let me know if this would constitute a defamation of character lawsuit? and maybe a lawyer that specializes in these things.

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