This FAQ provides a general overview of the basic principles of American defamation law.
The material on this page is NOT legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client or any other relationship between the user and the Media Law Resource Center. Users should contact an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice applicable to their particular situation.
What is Libel?
Libel and slander are legal claims for false statements of fact about a person that are printed, broadcast, spoken or otherwise communicated to others. Libel generally refers to statements or visual depictions in written or other permanent form, while slander refers to verbal statements and gestures. The term defamation is often used to encompass both libel and slander.
In order for the person about whom a statement is made to recover for libel, the false statement must be defamatory, meaning that it actually harms the reputation of the other person, as opposed to being merely insulting or offensive.
The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must also have been published to at least one other person (other than the subject of the statement) and must be “of and concerning” the plaintiff. That is, those hearing or reading the statement must identify it specifically with the plaintiff.
The statement(s) alleged to be defamatory must also be a false statement of fact. That which is name-calling, hyperbole, or, however characterized, cannot be proven true or false, cannot be the subject of a libel or slander claim.
The defamatory statement must also have been made with fault. The extent of the fault depends primarily on the status of the plaintiff. Public figures, such as government officials, celebrities, well-known individuals, and people involved in specific public controversies, are required to prove actual malice, a legal term which means the defendant knew his statement was false or recklessly disregarded the truth or falsity of his statement. In most jurisdictions, private individuals must show only that the defendant was negligent: that he failed to act with due care in the situation.
A defamation claim — at least one based upon statements about issues that are matters of public interest — will likely fail if any of these elements are not met.
While on many of these issues the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, the primary defenses to a defamation claim are that the statements are true, are not statements of fact, or are privileged. Some defamatory statements may be protected by privilege, meaning that in certain circumstances the interest in communicating a statement outweighs the interest in protecting reputation. For example, most, if not all, jurisdictions recognize a privilege for fair reports of what is said, done, or published out of government and judicial proceedings, and for reports of misconduct to the proper authorities or to those who share a common interest (such as within a family or an association). Privileges do vary somewhat from state to state in their scope and requirements. They generally apply to non-media defendants to the same degree as to media defendants.
A successful defamation plaintiff may be entitled to a jury award of money damages. In some instances, the plaintiff may also be awarded punitive damages for particularly reprehensible conduct. The parties to the claim are entitled to appeal and cases are carefully scrutinized on review to protect the defendant’s First Amendment rights.
Defamation claims can be brought by living persons and entities that are considered “persons” under the law such as corporations, unincorporated businesses, associations and unions. Governmental entities cannot maintain actions for libel or slander, although a government official can bring suit for statements about the official individually.
Libel and slander are civil claims, but a handful of the states recognize an action for criminal defamation. Prosecutions are rare, especially against the media.
Under the American federal law system, defamation claims are largely governed by state law, subject to the limitations imposed by the free speech and press provisions of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution as interpreted and applied by the Supreme Court and other courts. While the elements of defamation are largely identical throughout the country, because defamation is a matter of state law there can be important differences on substantive and procedural details of the claim in the separate jurisdictions. And as a result of the application of First Amendment requirements to the claims, the specific elements as well as the burdens of proof with respect to those elements may be different depending upon whether the plaintiff is a public or private figure, whether the defendant is media or non-media, and the character of the statement(s) at issue.
More detailed information on libel and slander in each American jurisdiction, and in Canada and England, is available in our 50-State Survey of Media Libel Law. We also publish a 50-State Survey of Media Privacy and Related Law. Our 50-State Survey of Employment Libel and Privacy Law discusses these issues in the context of the workplace.
What is Slander?
Slander is a defamatory statement made verbally or by gesture. The same rules generally apply to both libel and slander, which are often grouped together under the term “defamation.” In some jurisdictions, the statute of limitations for slander is shorter than for libel. See What is Libel?
What are the Top Awards in Cases Against the Media?
The updated list is available here. MLRC publishes an updated list in its annual Report on Trials and Damages. The annual report is summarized in press releases, and is available for purchase here.
Help! I’ve Been Sued for Libel!
If you have been named as a defendant in a libel suit, you should not ignore it. Your failure to act may have severe legal and financial consequences. You should find a lawyer who is well-versed in First Amendment issues to advise you. See Where Can I Find a First Amendment Lawyer?
Can I Be Sued for Something I Put on the Internet?
Yes. The laws regarding defamation apply to Internet as they do to more traditional media. However, federal law protects Internet service providers (ISPs) and other interactive computer services from many lawsuits.
What is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation?
A Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation or a “SLAPP suit,” is a retaliatory lawsuit, usually but not always based on a libel claim, against discussion on a public issue or controversy. Because participation by the public and press in public discussion is highly valued in the United States, and it is feared that SLAPP lawsuits deter that participation, some states have adopted anti-SLAPP laws to facilitate quick dismissal of such cases.
I Want to Sue Someone for Libel
The Media Law Resource Center is focused on assisting defendants in lawsuits involving media law issues. We cannot assist plaintiffs in such cases.
Where Can I Find a First Amendment Lawyer?
The Media Law Resource Center does not provide legal advice.
If you have been named as a defendant in a defamation lawsuit, you may want to contact one of our law firm members. You also may consult your local bar association’s lawyer referral service.
Working press may also contact your state or local press association.
Can I Access MLRC Resources?
While MLRC can sometimes assist defendants in libel and privacy litigation, especially media defendants, with litigation support resources, membership in MLRC will give you more familiarity and better access to these resources. For more information on MLRC membership, click here.
Issues of the MLRC Bulletin and our 50-State Surveys are available for sale to the general public.
The material on this page is NOT legal advice, and does not create an attorney-client or any other relationship between the recipient and the Media Law Resource Center. Readers of this page should contact an attorney in their jurisdiction for legal advice applicable to their particular situation.