With all this talk about snowflakes, freedom of speech, hate speech, etc. it can be difficult to know what you can and can’t say, and what your rights are when it comes to what others say about you. These days, it seems like a mere mention of the weather will offend somebody. But when does offense cross over into defamation? When are someone’s words so injurious to your reputation that you can sue them for it? While it varies somewhat from state to state, there are some helpful guidelines for knowing when to sue someone for defamation of character.

Elements of a Defamation Lawsuit

Defamation is only punishable as a civil wrong — it’s not a criminal matter. To know when to sue for defamation, you have to know what the elements of the cause of action are. Again, the wording varies from state to state, but in order to prove defamation, you generally have to show:

  • Someone made a false statement about you;
  • The statement was published to a third party — either verbally (slander) or in writing (libel);
  • The statement caused injury to you; and
  • The statement does not fit into one of several exceptions

What’s a Defamation Injury?

Unlike the bruise or broken bone that accompanies a battery claim, the injury from defamation can be harder to prove. But generally, you must show that the statement hurt your reputation, professional or otherwise. If you run a business, you might show how the statements hurt you financially. Or, if the statements were so distressing that they caused health problems, those can be proof of injury. Also, some statements are presumed to be defamatory, such as accusations of sexual misconduct, criminal activity, or having an STD.

Truth as a Defense

Another important part of the defamation puzzle is the falsity of the statement. If someone says or writes something about you that really hurts your reputation, it will not be considered defamatory if it is, in fact, true. For example, telling people that your restaurant gave patrons food poisoning is not defamatory if it’s true. Likewise, statements of opinion — your restaurant’s food tastes bad — is not defamatory.

Defamation and False Light

Defamation is sometimes confused with allegations of “false light.” While they are very similar, defamation involves reputational harm, while false light is more about offensive or embarrassing statements. Also, while false light involves a statement or implication that was made with reckless disregard, defamation only demands you prove reckless disregard when the subject is a public figure.

There are a lot of nuances to proving a defamation lawsuit. Whether you’ve been harmed by someone else’s words, or you’ve been accused of making defamatory statements, get help from an attorney with experience dealing with these types of torts.

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