Online Defamation Law

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  • Topic: Defamation, Tort, False light
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  • Published : March 4, 2013
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Online Defamation Law
The Bloggers' FAQ on Online Defamation Law provides an overview of defamation (libel) law, including a discussion of the constitutional and statutory privileges that may protect you. What is defamation?

Generally, defamation is a false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone's reputation, and published "with fault," meaning as a result of negligence or malice. State laws often define defamation in specific ways. Libel is a written defamation; slander is a spoken defamation. What are the elements of a defamation claim?

The elements that must be proved to establish defamation are: 1.a publication to one other than the person defamed;
2.a false statement of fact;
3.that is understood as
a. being of and concerning the plaintiff; and
b. tending to harm the reputation of plaintiff.
• If the plaintiff is a public figure, he or she must also prove actual malice. Is truth a defense to defamation claims?
Yes. Truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim. But keep in mind that the truth may be difficult and expensive to prove. Can my opinion be defamatory?
No—but merely labeling a statement as your "opinion" does not make it so. Courts look at whether a reasonable reader or listener could understand the statement as asserting a statement of verifiable fact. (A verifiable fact is one capable of being proven true or false.) This is determined in light of the context of the statement. A few courts have said that statements made in the context of an Internet bulletin board or chat room are highly likely to be opinions or hyperbole, but they do look at the remark in context to see if it's likely to be seen as a true, even if controversial, opinion ("I really hate George Lucas' new movie") rather than an assertion of fact dressed up as an opinion ("It's my opinion that Trinity is the hacker who broke into the IRS database"). What is a statement of verifiable fact?

A statement of verifiable fact is a statement that conveys a provably false factual assertion, such as someone has committed murder or has cheated on his spouse. To illustrate this point, consider the following excerpt from a court (Vogel v. Felice) considering the alleged defamatory statement that plaintiffs were the top-ranking 'Dumb Asses' on defendant's list of "Top Ten Dumb Asses": A statement that the plaintiff is a "Dumb Ass," even first among "Dumb Asses," communicates no factual proposition susceptible of proof or refutation. It is true that "dumb" by itself can convey the relatively concrete meaning "lacking in intelligence." Even so, depending on context, it may convey a lack less of objectively assayable mental function than of such imponderable and debatable virtues as judgment or wisdom. Here defendant did not use "dumb" in isolation, but as part of the idiomatic phrase, "dumb ass." When applied to a whole human being, the term "ass" is a general expression of contempt essentially devoid of factual content. Adding the word "dumb" merely converts "contemptible person" to "contemptible fool." Plaintiffs were justifiably insulted by this epithet, but they failed entirely to show how it could be found to convey a provable factual proposition. ... If the meaning conveyed cannot by its nature be proved false, it cannot support a libel claim. This California case also rejected a claim that the defendant linked the plaintiffs' names to certain web addresses with objectionable addresses (i.e. www.satan.com), noting "merely linking a plaintiff's name to the word "satan" conveys nothing more than the author's opinion that there is something devilish or evil about the plaintiff." Is there a difference between reporting on public and private figures? Yes. A private figure claiming defamation—your neighbor, your roommate, the guy who walks his dog by your favorite coffee shop—only has to prove you acted negligently, which is to say that a "reasonable person" would not have published the defamatory statement. A...
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