Defenses Against Libel

By Zachary Drexler

On a daily basis, journalists face a barrage of challenges; the search for story ideas, a parade of deadlines, and the never-ending quest for interviews. Still, nothing is quite as stressful as a libel lawsuit. No matter how careful a journalist is with his or her words, it is highly likely someone is going to get upset and sue him or her.

Libel is the written communication of a statement that makes a claim, implied to be factual, that may give and individual or organization a negative image. There are four elements of libel; publication, identification, harm, and fault. A statement is published if it is communicated to a third-party that is someone other than the person whom the statement is about. A libel statement has to specifically identify someone and must seriously shame, disgrace, or ridicule the person’s image and cause others to do the same. Also, it must be proven that the offender did something they should not have done, or failed to do something a reasonable professional would not have done.

In contemporary American society, people are always ready to make easy money, and consequently many are willing to sue anybody for whatever reason. A libel lawsuit is a good way to make some quick cash and retaliate against someone who has insulted you. This is bad news for journalists because there is little they can do to avoid a libel lawsuit. Luckily for them, there are specific defenses available against a libel claim.

The number one defense is truth. Libel is only illegal because it is untrue, if a journalist can prove that the adverse public statement he or she made is based on fact then they are off the proverbially hook.

The second defense is a little something called “actual malice”. In order to win damages in a libel lawsuit, the plaintiff must prove that the offender knew that the information was false and defamatory ahead of time but printed it anyway. In other words, the publisher acted against the victim with malicious intent. This concept was devised in the 1964 United States Supreme Court lawsuit New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, which ruled that public officials needed to prove actual malice in order to recover damages for libel.

Additional defenses include; proving that statements were made in good faith and reasonable belief that they were true, proving that statements were the expression of opinion rather than a statement of fact, and the right to make a fair comment on a matter of public interests. The latter is only applicable if arguments were made with an honest belief in their soundness on a matter of public interest.

To find the best defense for you, consult a professional slander or libel attorney in your area.

You can read more about libel at

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One Response to Defenses Against Libel

  1. jnguyen115 says:

    This blog reminds me of what I learned in Professor Belmas’ Comm Law class. Her class was a wealth of useful information, just like this blog. That’s why I think it’s so important to make sure you fact check on your writing as well as making sure you don’t misquote any of your sources.

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