If anyone has ever said anything bad about you, you may have wondered
if you could sue that person for defamation. Libel and slander are
two forms of defamation.
Defamation is defined as a false statement communicated to another person that damages your reputation. Libel is communicating a defamatory statement by writing or picture, while slander is defamation by oral or spoken communication.
If such words were written or spoken of you, you are not defamed if the words were true. Truth is a complete defense to defamation. Even if your reputation is damaged by a defamatory communication, you cannot recover if the communication was true. Other defenses include statements made in jest (where the communication was not intended to be taken seriously), and when the communication was an opinion (not actionable) and not a fact.
Another notable defense is the defense of privilege. A person may have spoken or written the words about you in a privileged way, that is, the law allows certain people to say certain things in certain places without fear of being charged with defamation. For example, public officials, such as city council members, performing their official duties may be protected by the privilege, as are people making statements in judicial or legislative proceedings. Certain other communications may be privileged, but the rules are too complex and too many to be stated in the short length of this message. An attorney can help you with your particular case.
If you have been defamed by a newspaper, magazine, motion picture or radio or television broadcast, you must demand a retraction in order to collect all of your damages. The retraction must be requested within 20 days from the date you learn of the publication. If the newspaper, television or radio station retracts the defamatory statement, you may still sue, but you may collect only the amount of money you actually lost.
If you believe you have a defamation case, you normally have one year from the date of the communication (whether written or oral) to file the lawsuit. If you do not do so, the statute of limitations will prevent you from beginning the case later.
A defamation case is a particularly difficult kind of lawsuit to win. Courts and juries like to preserve the freedom of speech as much as possible. It is also hard for a jury to try to put a dollar value on the loss to your reputation.
Legal editor: Willard H. Chi, January 2012