What Is Defamation?
Some of the most high-profile defamation suits come out of Hollywood. Celebrities are always suing tabloids for printing harmful information about them. But what exactly constitutes defamation? Defamation is not as simple as spreading baseless information, the lie being told must create some “legally cognizable harm,” otherwise it is protected under the First Amendment. In California, the rules are different for public figures and private individuals, or whether the matter is public or private. In the private realm, many defamation suits involve someone airing their point of view after a business dispute.
The California Civil Jury Instructions sets out the definition of a defamation case in a private business relationship. The elements include:
- The statement must be made to a person that is not the Plaintiff. It is not defamation if the comments were made to the person being discussed.
- The statement has to be explicitly about the Plaintiff.
- The statement must threaten to expose the Plaintiff to “hatred, contempt, ridicule or shame”, discourage others from dealing with or associating with them, or injury them in their occupation. This excludes the calling of general and non-specific insults because that is “general expression of contempt essentially devoid of factual content.” (Vogel v. Felice.)
- The fourth element is the most fundamental. The statement must be false. In many defamation suits, the focus is on proving whether the statement is true. If it is true it is not defamation.
- If you are simply repeating a statement that originated from someone else, this can still be considered defamation. You are required by law to take “reasonable care” to determine if the statement you’re repeating is true
- The final element is that the Plaintiff must be able to prove that they suffered loss or damage as a result of the statement.