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- As a reporter or journalist it’s crucial to understand the basics of libel and libel law. Generally speaking, the United States has the freest press in the world, as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. American journalists are generally free to pursue their reporting wherever it may take them, and to cover topics, as The New York Times motto puts it, “without fear or favor.”
- But that doesn’t mean reporters can write anything they want. Rumor, innuendo and gossip are things hard-news reporters generally avoid (as opposed to reporters on the celebrity beat). Most importantly, reporters do not have the right to libel the people they write about.
- In other words, with great freedom comes great responsibility. Libel law is where the press freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment meet the requirements of responsible journalism.
- In law, libel is the written communication of a statement that makes a false or deceptive claim, expressly stated or implied to be factual, that may harm the reputation of an individual, business, product, group, government or nation. Most jurisdictions allow legal actions, civil and/or criminal, to deter various kinds of defamation and retaliate against groundless criticism. Related to defamation is public disclosure of private facts where one person reveals information which is not of public concern and the release of which would offend a reasonable person. Unlike libel or slander, truth is not a defense for invasion of privacy.
- Two torts that involve the communication of false information about a person, a group, or an entity such as a corporation or nation. Libel is any defamation that can be seen, such as a writing, printing, effigy, movie, or statue. Slander is any defamation that is spoken and heard.
- Collectively known as defamation, libel and slander are civil wrongs that harm a reputation; decrease respect, regard, or confidence; or induce disparaging, hostile, or disagreeable opinions or feelings against an individual or entity. The injury to one’s good name or reputation is affected through written or spoken words or visual images. The laws governing these torts are identical.
- To recover in a libel or slander suit, the plaintiff must show evidence of four elements: that the defendant conveyed a defamatory message; that the material was published, meaning that it was conveyed to someone other than the plaintiff; that the plaintiff could be identified as the person referred to in the defamatory material; and that the plaintiff suffered some injury to his or her reputation as a result of the communication.
- To prove that the material was defamatory, the plaintiff must show that at least one other person who saw or heard it understood it as having defamatory meaning. It is necessary to show not that all who heard or read the statement understood it to be defamatory, but only that one person other than the plaintiff did so. Therefore, even if the defendant contends that the communication was a joke, if one person other than the plaintiff took it seriously, the communication is considered defamatory.
- In general, there are four defenses to libel or slander: truth, consent, accident, and privilege. The fact that the allegedly defamatory communication is essentially true is usually an absolute defense; the defendant need not verify every detail of the communication, as long as its substance can be established.