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What Is a Libel Lawsuit?

Sarah Edwards | November 04, 2022

Sarah Edwards
Legal Expert
Sarah Edwards, BS

Sarah Edwards is a professional researcher and writer specializing in legal content. An Emerson College alumna, she holds a Bachelor of Science in Communication from the prestigious Boston institution.

Edited by Hannah Locklear

Hannah Locklear
Editor at SoloSuit
Hannah Locklear, BA

Hannah Locklear is SoloSuit’s Marketing and Impact Manager. With an educational background in Linguistics, Spanish, and International Development from Brigham Young University, Hannah has also worked as a legal support specialist for several years.

Posting untrue things about people online can be considered libel.

Summary: Libel is very similar to slander, but instead of verbal or oral defamation, it involves written defamation. You should be cautious of the things you write and post about other people. If proven untrue, you could be charged for libel.

Libel is a form of defamation that occurs when someone makes false statements about another person in a published format. Usually, the comments are malicious in nature and harm the person’s reputation or character.

Libel is easier to prove in court than slander because people can easily retrieve the comments or other evidence from a publication.

What is the difference between slander and libel?

Libel involves making false statements about another person in some form of published medium, such as a magazine, newspaper, or social media forum. Libel can also occur when a person makes false statements in a recorded video or interview.

Any time there’s retrievable content that the wronged individual can use to prove someone made damaging statements about them, they can establish that libel occurred.

Slander involves making defamatory statements that aren’t in a published form but harm the recipient’s reputation nevertheless. Usually, the wrongdoer makes defamatory statements to someone close to the individual, like a spouse, partner, friend, or work colleague.

Slander is more difficult to prove since there’s no written record of what was said. If the case goes to court, the individual who suffered harm must rely on witnesses to verify their story.

What elements prove libel?

To prove libel, the plaintiff, or victim of the statements, will have to meet several requirements.

First, the defendant, or wrongdoer, must have published a false statement about the plaintiff. The statement must have been shared with at least one third party.

Next, the defendant must have made the statement with the intent to cause harm and without disregard for how the statement would affect the plaintiff.

In some states, the plaintiff must prove they incurred special damages. Special damages are financial losses caused by the defendant’s harmful statement.

Public figures, like celebrities, politicians, and government officials, are regularly subjected to false claims about them in the media. In most cases, public figures cannot file a libel lawsuit unless statements were made with extreme malice and caused significant damage to their reputation.

What is an example of libel?

Now that you have a better understanding of what libel is and how it works, let’s take a look at an example.

Example: Josh is jealous of his ex-girlfriend, Abby, because of her job. He constructs a story that she’s an alcoholic and uses drugs on weekends. Josh posts the story on social media where Abby’s colleagues will see it, and they tell her boss. Josh then publishes fake photos on social media of Abby partying on the weekend, which one of her colleagues sees. They show the pictures to Abby's boss. Based on the social media posts, the boss decides to fire Abby. She loses her job and must search for another. Since she doesn’t have much savings, she falls behind on her rent and loses her apartment. Abby decides to sue her ex-boyfriend for libel. She wins since she can prove the statements are false and the pictures are fake. The ex-boyfriend must pay damages for the woman’s financial losses and harm to her reputation.

Kind of a sad situation, but libel is no joking matter. Be careful what you write and post about other people, because it can have a lasting effect on not only others’ lives, but also your own.

What are the damages available for libel?

If you successfully win a libel case against someone who hurt your reputation, the court may award you general and special damages.

General damages compensate the victim for the harm done to their reputation. Plaintiffs can ask for a specific award for general damages, and the judge or jury will decide whether the amount is fair.

Specific damages compensate the victim for the financial losses incurred due to the false statement. For instance, someone who loses their job or assets due to a false statement made by someone else may recover specific damages for their losses.

Individuals who want to seek damages from another person for a libel case can file their claim in civil or small claims court, depending on which is more appropriate. Small claims court is best for individuals without significant financial losses, while civil courts can award larger compensation claims.

What are the defenses to libel?

There are several defenses to libel.

Truth is one of the best defenses against libel. A defendant who can prove their statements were accurate will not be responsible for damaging the plaintiff’s reputation.

Another defense to libel is consent. The defendant might not be at fault if the plaintiff gave their consent to publish the statements.

In some cases, defendants can use absolute privilege as a defense. Individuals involved in legal proceedings have absolute privilege. Conversations between a husband and wife also fall into the absolute privilege category.

Finally, conditional privilege exists when individuals make statements to protect a family member or the public’s general interest.

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