Freedom of speech is one of the cornerstones of our society here in the United States. But, people don’t always have the right to say whatever they want about someone else. If they say something malicious, false and defamatory, it could be unlawful because it defames the person.
The rule of thumb is that it is defamation when it damages a person’s reputation. If this is done in writing or published in the media, it is libel. If the defamatory statement was verbal, it is considered slander. A victim of defamation can file a lawsuit in civil court.
Opinions are not defamation
People are entitled to their right to free speech, but they cannot make defamatory statements. Opinions by their nature are subjective and, therefore, neither true nor false. To be an opinion, the statement must be something along the lines of “I think John Smith is mentally ill – this is an opinion.
Examples of defamation
Here are instances where there is defamation:
- An employee was wrongfully accused of racism and is unable to find another job because of the grounds of the dismissal tainted his professional reputation.
- An employer is inaccurately accused of assaulting an employee, and the employee then claims within the company and it the greater community that the employer did it. The innocent employer is probably defamed.
Higher burdens of proof for public figures
Freedom of speech particularly applies to citizens’ ability to voice their displeasure regarding the government or elected officials. This also carries over to other public figures like movie stars, professional athletes, famous musicians, and other people in the public eye. Along with the usual need to prove injury through ordinary defamation, there must also be an element of malice where they know the statement was not true when they said it but recklessly said it because they thought it would damage the victim.
Blurred lines in today’s society
Some of the examples here would seem to be another day of following social media or reading a newspaper. Nonetheless, defamation laws are in place to protect the innocent. The lines are blurrier these days, but those with questions about an incident or statement can get guidance from an attorney with a background in this area.