5 Important Elements That Establish Defamation as a Crime in the US

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Posted on: 03 May 2017 by Suzanne Winchester

When a person is accused of defamation the law requires a fair trial to be held in order to determine the final judgment.

The most common cases are civil claims that are based on either defamation of character, malicious prosecution, and/or false imprisonment. However, based on relevant grounds, someone convicted of defamation can face punitive measures and monetary damage claims.

What is defamation?

Before we go any further, let’s understand the United States defamation laws and standards. Defamation constitutes slander, spoken or otherwise transitory statements and libel, written or otherwise published content. In legal terms, defamation is defined as follows:

"Any statement that makes a claim - expressly stated or implied to be factual, which aims at giving an individual, business, product, government or for that matter nation a negative image, is said to be defamatory.”

Academic view on defamation of character

Defamation is a tricky term that tries to strike a balance between two competing and dichotomous aspects. The first aspect underlines that the law doesn’t permit anyone to ruin others’ lives by telling and spreading lies about them. The other aspect, however, allows people a degree of freedom to speak without the fear of litigation over any disagreement or mistake.

In a free, liberal, and democratic society people are absolutely free to agree and disagree or they may agree to disagree over a lot of issues. This is because not all of us possess similar opinions or beliefs. However, the dignity, integrity, respect, and honour of each and every citizen of the society is of paramount importance. So, if an individual intentionally maligns others’ images, then it constitutes the “Defamation of Character”. 

Thus in the United States, defamation of character is considered as a serious crime for obvious reasons.

Sometimes the convicts of defamation cases have to go through a rigorous imprisonment, which they find very difficult to cope with. In such a scenario, the courts also have a provision to release them on bail and if the accused do not have enough funds to pay for their bail, they can avail help from bail bond service provider.

Having said that, as per the law and constitution, a victim is provided with a fair chance to prove and establish that defamation has occurred. Generally, the defamation is proved by establishing five elements. Let us discuss them one by one:

1. Statement

Anything that can be spoken, written, pictured, or even gestured is known as the statement of defamation. The fact that written statements last longer and spread in much wider areas gives them the potential to become more damaging than the spoken statements. This is precisely why courts, judges, and juries consider libel more harmful than slander.

2. Published

Take this scenario, for example, a third party hears or sees a statement from someone other than the person who presumably made that statement. They go on to publish this information without actually fact-checking and this ends up maligning the person. In this case, the third party is said to have committed the defamation act. Publishing doesn’t only involve printing something in a book or a newspaper. It also includes making something public through television, radio, website, or public speeches.

3. False

The defamation must be objectively false otherwise it is less likely considered as damaging. As a matter of fact, it is not against the law to say something mean about somebody because in that case it is entirely a subjective one. If, for instance, a critic says that the movie was one of the worst he had seen in a long time, then the statement is vague and subjective enough not to attract a lawsuit. As a similar example, if the environmental activists say that the corporate practices are causing harm to the earth, they can’t be sued for defamation because, again, it is a subjective statement.

4. Injurious

The defamation must have caused character injury. In this case, the individual’s or a company’s reputation is compromised. Since the whole basis of defamation law is to address the injury caused to the victim’s reputation, the victim must establish how their reputation or character was hurt by the false statement. If the statement correlates with a loss of money, property, relationship, or was subject to harassment, then it will lead to quantifiable injurious damages.

5. Unprivileged

If any statement being made with regards to a person or an organization is unprivileged, then it qualifies to be a defamatory statement and liable for lawsuit. That is, unprivileged speeches are not the protected ones. For example, the witness testimony in court and lawmakers in legislative chambers are privileged and protected under United States Constitution.

Final Thoughts

Defamation is a complex area of law that differentiates freedom of speech from maligning the reputation of an individual or an organization. In the United States, expressing an opinion about someone is not considered as defamation. However, if false statements are made that are not only completely devoid of facts, but cause a significant harm to a person’s reputation as well, then the law will definitely take its course.

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