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Slander / Libel

Slander is oral defamation where someone tells one or more people something untrue about another which harms the reputation of the defamed person. Slander may be the basis for a lawsuit and is a civil wrong (tort). Damages awarded in slander suits may be limited to actual (special) damages unless malicious intent is involved because it is typically difficult to specify as well as prove. Slander per se occurs if statements are made such as an untrue accusation of having committed a crime, having a loathsome disease or being unable to perform one's occupation because the harm and malice are obvious and usually result in general and punitive damages for the person that was harmed. Words that are spoke over the air on television or the radio are treated as libel (written slander), not as slander since broadcasting reaches a large audience, if not greater than a printed publication.

Libel is to publish in print writing or pictures, broadcast through radio, television or film something that is false about someone else which would cause harm to that person or his/her reputation by bringing the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn, or contempt of others. Libel is defamation, which is written, or broadcast and is distinguishable from slander, which is oral defamation. Libel is a civil wrong that makes the person or entity that printed the statement (such as a newspaper, magazine or political organization) open to a lawsuit for damages by the person whom the false statement was made about. The publication only needs to be made to one person but must include a statement that claims to be fact and is not clearly identified as an opinion. The person issuing the libelous statement is sometimes required to show intention and malice, the statement only needs to obviously cause harm and be shown to be untrue. If proof of malice exists, the defamed party can sue for general damages for harming their reputation. An inadvertent libel is limited to damages to special damages (actual harm) such as loss of business. Libel per se involves vicious statements that are assumed to involve malice and do not require a proof of intent in order to be awarded general damages. If libel occurs against a deceased’s reputation, the surviving family members can bring an action for damages. Most states demand a published retraction for statements issued against defamed parties by periodicals. There is not right to file a lawsuit if the correction is made. Government bodies are immune to libel actions because there could be no intent by a non-personal entity. Additionally, public records are exempt from libel claims. However, there is at least one known case involving a governmental body in which there was a financial settlement as well as a published correction when a state government newsletter erroneously stated that a dentist had been disciplined for illegal conduct. The U.S. Supreme Court decisions have established the rules that cover libel against “public figured.” The key is to retain the right to express opinions or fair comment on public figures so the libel must be malicious to serve as grounds for a lawsuit. Minor errors in reporting are not libel, such as saying Mrs. Jones was 55 when she was only 48, or incorrectly stating a street address.