• W. Cory Reiss

Defamation claims link insults to injuries

Nothing bruises the ego like harsh words about one’s integrity, especially when they’re false.


Hit with an attack like that, how to react might seem clear at first. How about a good punch in the nose, you say?


Well, we’ve got a legal system that’s supposed to provide an alternative to fist fighting. To use it wisely, however, requires a cold, clear-eyed analysis to distinguish a worthwhile defamation claim from a costly battle over empty words.


Whether attacks with false information are written or verbal, they could be defamatory. Slander is the legal name for false verbal statements and libel is the label for false written statements. In either case, the defamatory words must be “published” to people other than you. Otherwise, they can’t harm your reputation. The statements also must be false, because truth is always a defense to slander or libel. Mere opinions don’t count either.


Certain types of defamation are so bad they are presumed to be damaging to reputation. Those generally include claims that the target is a criminal, carries a dreaded disease, is incompetent in his trade, and other particularly nasty accusations. Words that are susceptible to more than one meaning, one of them being defamatory, or that become defamatory in a certain context require evidence that they actually injured the victim. Those latter claims are harder to win because evidence of injury might be tough to show.


Gauging the strength of a defamation claim requires attention to every aspect of the communication, its circumstances, the speaker’s background, and the interests of the subject targeted by the attack. What may seem clearly defamatory to you might not be so bad in the eyes of the law or, even if it is defamatory, worth little to nothing by the only measure that counts: dollars.


In some cases, a warning letter or litigation is truly warranted to correct the public record and deter similar attacks.


In others, the best reaction may be no reaction at all. Many people would prefer that the attacks simply stop. In certain cases, a thorough assessment reveals the harsh words did more to hurt the speaker’s reputation than the victim’s and are unlikely to be repeated.


But when the record needs to be corrected, a solid defamation claim may be worth the fight.

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