Everyone has the right to freedom of speech, but it has limitations. It’s essential to understand where we can freely express ourselves and where we need to exercise restraint. Freedom doesn’t mean violating others’ legal rights. Committing such violations is considered personal injury, with defamatory statements being a prime example.
There are two types of defamation: Slander And Libel. U.S. courts recognize slander as a cause of action since it infringes upon an individual’s personal rights. A slander lawsuit enables victims to seek compensation for damage to their reputations.
In this legal article, we will delve into the following topics: “What is a slander lawsuit?”, “Which conditions must be proven to claim compensation for slander?”, “The defenses and limitations of a slander lawsuit”, and the potential compensation you might receive if you win the case.
What is Slander?
Slander is a form of defamation that refers to false spoken statements made about a person, which harm their reputation. Unlike libel, which deals with written or printed defamation, slander concerns transient forms of communication, typically oral.
To be considered slander, the statement must be false, damaging to the individual’s reputation, and made to a third party. The injured party may seek legal remedies, often in the form of damages, if they can prove that the statement was false and it resulted in harm to their reputation.
What is Slander Per Se?
Slander per se refers to certain false spoken statements deemed so damaging that harm to the plaintiff’s reputation is assumed, eliminating the need for actual proof of damage. The categories typically include:
- Accusations of a Crime: False claims about someone committing a crime.
- Allegations of Contagious Diseases: Falsely stating someone has a contagious disease.
- Claims on Professional Competence: False statements about a person’s professional abilities or ethics.
- Statements Imputing Immorality: Falsely suggesting a lack of moral or ethical integrity.
How Can I prove Slander?
Slander involves damaging one’s reputation through false spoken statements. To successfully prove a slander claim in court, the plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant made an untrue oral remark about them, which others heard.
Further, this statement should have directly harmed their reputation, and it should be evident that listeners identified the plaintiff as the statement’s subject.
What Proof Do You Need For Slander?
1. Statement Must Be Offered As A Fact
When people share their views, there’s a difference between stating an opinion and making a factual claim. For slander, the focus is on what’s presented as fact. For instance, saying, “I feel Jane is not very helpful” is an opinion. But if someone declares, “Jane was fired from her last job for stealing,” that’s a factual statement and could be considered slander if it’s false.
2. The Statement Needs To Be Defamatory
Simply put, a statement that makes someone look bad in the eyes of others might be slander. If people start thinking less of you because of what someone said, then that could be a problem. Courts check each case to see if the statement is truly damaging or just someone’s harmless opinion.
3. Oral Statement
Here’s where slander and libel part ways. Slander is all about spoken words. If someone writes or publishes a damaging falsehood, that ventures into the territory of libel. To put it another way, if you hear it, it’s slander; if you read it, it’s libel.
4. The Statement Needs to Be Published
This doesn’t mean the statement needs to be in a book or newspaper. It means someone else, apart from the person it’s about, heard or saw it. For example, if someone talks badly about you on social media or in a conversation where others can hear, that counts.
5. The Statement Needs To Be False
For a statement to be slander, it has to be untrue. If what was said is true, even if it’s hurtful, it isn’t slander. Also, things like “I think he’s a bad dentist” are just opinions and not facts. So, they’re usually not considered slander.
6. The Statement Needs To Be Harmful
It’s not just about someone saying something false about you. That lie must cause some damage. Maybe you lost your job, or people are treating you differently because of it. Or, maybe friends and family see you in a new, negative light.
7. The Statement Needs To Target You
If someone hears the damaging statement, they must know it’s about you. If it’s too vague, it might not count. For example, if someone says, “A manager at the store steals money,” but doesn’t say which manager, it’s not clear who they are talking about.
8. No Consent
This one’s straightforward. If you give the green light for someone to make a statement about you, you can’t cry foul later. It’s like giving someone permission to borrow your car and then accusing them of theft.
9. The Statement Needs To Show Actual Malice (for Public Officials and Figures)
People who are well-known, like celebrities or politicians, have to prove an extra point. They need to show that the person who made the statement either knew it was a lie or didn’t care if it was true or not. This rule exists because famous people are often talked about, and sometimes people make mistakes when discussing them.
10. The Statement Does Not Fall Under ‘Qualified Privilege
Sometimes, even if everything above is true, you can’t sue for slander. There are special situations where people are allowed to speak freely without getting sued. For instance, if someone is giving testimony in court, talking in a government meeting, or chatting with their spouse, what they say is usually protected.
Learn More to know more:
Some Examples of Slander
- Professional Competence: Telling others, “I heard Lisa got fired from her last three jobs for being incompetent,” when in reality, Lisa has had a consistent work record and has never been fired.
- False Accusations of Crimes: Claiming in a gathering, “Tom stole money from the community fund,” when Tom did nothing of the sort.
- Health Status: Announcing at a social event, “I’ve heard that Derek has a contagious disease,” when that isn’t true.
- Moral Character: Telling neighbors, “Samantha cheats on her spouse all the time,” based on baseless rumors or pure fabrication.
- Financial Integrity: In a business meeting, stating, “Mike’s company is going bankrupt soon. I wouldn’t trust him with any deals,” when Mike’s company is financially stable.
- Educational Background: Telling colleagues, “Jenna never really graduated from college. She faked her degree,” when Jenna genuinely earned her degree.
- Relationship Lies: Sharing with friends, “Chris was dumped by his girlfriend because he was too clingy,” when there’s no truth to that narrative.
- Parenting Abilities: At a school meeting, mentioning, “I don’t think Sarah should be allowed to head the PTA because she’s an unfit mother,” without any evidence to back that claim.
- Making Up Stories: Telling others, “Did you know that Alex got into a bar fight last weekend and got arrested?” when Alex spent his weekend at home.
- Hobby & Skills: Commenting, “Oliver says he’s good at playing the guitar, but I’ve heard he can hardly strum a chord,” despite knowing Oliver’s proficient guitar skills.
Defenses Against Slander
- Truth: This is the most straightforward defense. If the statement made is true, then it’s an absolute defense to a slander claim in most jurisdictions. Truth is a defense even if the statement was damaging or negative.
- Opinion: If the statement was a genuine expression of opinion rather than an assertion of a fact, it might be protected as free speech. However, the line between fact and opinion can be blurry, and merely prefacing a statement with “I think” doesn’t automatically make it an opinion.
- Retraction: In some jurisdictions, a person who made a false statement can retract or correct it, possibly reducing the damages they might owe or even providing a full defense.
- Privilege: Certain statements made in specific settings are protected, even if they’re false. For instance, statements made during legislative proceedings or in court by witnesses, judges, or attorneys might be privileged.
- Consent: If the subject of the statement gave their permission to publish the information, it could be used as a defense against a slander claim.
- Fair Comment on Public Figure: A statement that is a fair comment or criticism about a public figure might be protected, especially if it’s not made with actual malice. This is particularly relevant for journalists and critics.
- Actual Malice: In the U.S., public figures need to prove not only that the statement was false but also that it was made with “actual malice” – meaning the person either knew it was false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.
- Neutral Reportage: This defense is applicable in situations where a media outlet neutrally reports a potentially defamatory statement made by a third party. It’s based on the idea that the public has a right to know about controversies, even if they involve unverified allegations.
- Statute of Limitations: There’s a time limit within which a slander suit must be filed. If the aggrieved party waits too long, they might be barred from bringing a lawsuit.
- Innocent Dissemination: This defense can be applicable to entities like internet service providers or radio stations that might unknowingly transmit a slanderous statement made by a third party.
Libel vs. Slander
1. Nature of the Statement:
- Libel: Refers to a defamatory statement made in a fixed, permanent form, primarily written or printed. This includes newspapers, books, photographs, and online publications.
- Slander: Pertains to transient, non-permanent forms of communication, typically spoken words. This could be a verbal statement made in person, over the phone, or via a broadcast.
2. Permanence & Spread:
- Libel: Given its written nature, libel is often considered more harmful since it has a lasting form and can be widely disseminated. A printed article or an online post can be revisited and shared multiple times.
- Slander: While spoken words can be impactful, they’re fleeting and might not have the same lasting effect or widespread reach as written words. However, with modern technology like videos or podcasts, slander can also gain significant permanence.
3. Proof of Damage:
- Libel: Because of its permanent nature, harm or damage to the aggrieved party is often presumed in libel cases. The plaintiff usually doesn’t need to prove actual harm.
- Slander: Typically requires the plaintiff to demonstrate actual damage, like financial loss or harm to reputation. Exceptions exist, such as “slander per se,” where certain statements are so inherently damaging that harm is presumed (e.g., false claims about criminal activity, contagious diseases, or professional competence).
4. Origin of the Terms:
- Libel: The term traces back to the Latin word “libellus,” meaning a small book.
- Slander: Originates from the Old French word “esclandre,” meaning a scandalous statement or report.
5. Common Defenses:
- Libel & Slander: The defenses for both include truth, opinion, privilege, and consent. However, the application might vary depending on the specifics of the case and whether it’s a written or spoken statement.
6. Modern Challenges:
- Libel: With the rise of digital media, online libel (or “cyber libel”) has become a growing concern. Determining jurisdiction or the statute of limitations can be complex.
- Slander: As spoken words gain permanence through video-sharing platforms, podcasts, and other digital mediums, the lines between slander and libel are becoming more blurred.
Time Limit to File a Lawsuit for Slander
In the U.S., the statute of limitations for filing a slander lawsuit varies by state, typically ranging from one to two years from when the statement was made. Some states use the “discovery rule,” starting the clock when the victim learns of the slander.
The statute can be paused in cases involving minors or evasion by the accused. Libel, concerning written defamation, might have different time frames. Due to these intricacies, potential slander victims should quickly consult an attorney to understand jurisdiction-specific limits.
How To File a Slander Lawsuit?
Initiating a slander lawsuit largely mirrors the process for other personal injury claims. If you believe you’ve been slandered, consider these guiding steps:
- Evaluate Your Claim: Ensure you have a legitimate slander case backed by solid evidence.
- Choose the Right Venue: Ascertain the most appropriate court jurisdiction for your lawsuit.
- Gather Essential Evidence: Collate all relevant proof, such as recordings or witness testimonies, supporting your claims.
- Adhere to Pre-Suit Requirements: Before diving into the lawsuit, make sure you comply with any pre-suit obligations or notices.
- Explore Pre-Trial Resolutions: Before escalating to a full-blown trial, evaluate alternative dispute resolutions or settlement opportunities.
- File and Serve the Complaint: Draft the official complaint, submit it to the designated court, and then serve it to the defendant, adhering to your state’s service protocols.
- Engage in Discovery: Exchange information, documents, and answer questions from both sides to build your case.
- Consult a Defamation Expert: Throughout this journey, the expertise of a defamation lawyer, specializing in slander, will be invaluable in guiding your decisions and strategy.”
Compensation for Slander
Compensation for slander, often referred to as “damages,” is designed to redress the harm that the defamed party has suffered. Here are the main types of compensation one might receive in a slander case:
- Actual or Compensatory Damages: These are damages that are intended to compensate the victim for the actual harm suffered as a result of the slander. This might include any financial loss resulting from the defamation, such as lost wages if one is fired due to false allegations. It also covers non-economic harm, such as pain and suffering or emotional distress.
- Special Damages: These are damages that compensate for quantifiable monetary losses directly resulting from the slander, such as lost business or other economic opportunities. The plaintiff needs to prove the exact monetary amount of these losses.
- General Damages: These are damages awarded for harm that’s typically assumed to have resulted from the slander, but doesn’t have a specific monetary value attached to it. Examples include compensation for damage to one’s reputation or mental anguish.
- Presumed Damages: In some cases, especially in slander per se (where the statements are inherently harmful), the court might award damages even if the plaintiff hasn’t proven any actual harm. These damages are awarded based on the presumption that some harm was done to the victim’s reputation.
- Punitive Damages: These are not meant to compensate the victim but to punish the offender and deter them and others from committing similar acts in the future. Punitive damages are only awarded in cases where the defendant acted with malice or exhibited particularly egregious behavior.
- Nominal Damages: Even if a plaintiff can’t prove that they suffered any substantial harm or financial loss due to the slander, they might still be awarded a small amount of money in recognition of the fact that their rights were violated.
Is It Hard To Win A Slander Case?
Winning a slander case can be challenging due to the rigorous standards of proof required. Plaintiffs must demonstrate the statement’s falsity, actual harm caused by it, and, in cases involving public figures, evidence of “actual malice.”
Additionally, the U.S. places a high value on First Amendment rights, making courts cautious about potentially infringing upon freedom of speech. Defenses like truth and qualified privilege further complicate the process. Given these complexities, securing a favorable outcome in a slander case often requires a robust legal strategy.
How Much Is A Defamation Lawsuit Worth?
The worth of a defamation lawsuit can vary greatly. As of May 15, 2023, Alex Jones was ordered to pay over $965 million in defamation cases. While exceptional, this highlights the potential significant financial impact of such lawsuits.
Is Slander Protected By The First Amendment?
No, slander is not protected by the First Amendment. While the First Amendment defends freedom of speech, false statements that harm someone’s reputation (slander) are exceptions and can be grounds for legal action. However, the boundaries are complex, especially concerning public figures. Here you can get more info.
Is Slander A Criminal Offence
In the United States, slander is typically a civil offense, not a criminal one. This means individuals can sue for damages if they believe they’ve been slandered. However, some jurisdictions outside the U.S. do treat certain forms of defamation, including slander, as a criminal offense. It’s essential to consult local laws or an attorney for specifics.
Is Slander A Felony?
In the United States, slander is generally not treated as a felony. Instead, it is a civil matter, and individuals who believe they have been slandered can sue for damages in civil court. Some jurisdictions outside the U.S. may criminalize certain forms of defamation, but in the U.S., slander is not categorized as a felony.
Can A Husband Sue His Wife For Slander?
Yes, in the United States, a husband can sue his wife for slander if he believes she made false spoken statements about him that harmed his reputation. However, intra-family lawsuits can be complicated. Some states may have specific provisions or limitations on such suits due to the nature of the marital relationship. It’s always recommended to consult with an attorney for guidance on the specifics of a situation.
James Mitchell graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a bachelor’s degree and from the University of Chicago with a law degree. He is the managing partner of Mitchell Legal Advocates and has written and spoken in numerous legal venues on various facets of personal injury law. In the state of New York, James is mainly recognised as a leading personal injury attorney.