A form of publication which tends to cause one to lose the esteem of the community is defamation. This is injury to reputation. A person is liable for the defamation of another. In order to prove defamation, the plaintiff must prove:
- that a statement was made about the plaintiff’s reputation, honesty or integrity that is not true;
- publication to a third party (i.e., another person hears or reads the statement); and
- the plaintiff suffers damages as a result of the statement.
Slander is a form of defamation that consists of making false oral statements about a person which would damage that person’s reputation. If I spread a rumor that my neighbor has been in jail and this is not true, I could be held liable for slander. Defamation which occurs by written statements is known as libel. Libel may also result from a picture or visual representation. Truth is an absolute defense to slander or libel.
Some statements, while libelous or slanderous, are absolutely privileged in the sense that the statements can be made without fear of a lawsuit for slander. The best example is a statement made in a court of law. An untrue statement made by a witness about a person in court which damages that person’s reputation will generally not cause liability to the witness as far as slander is concerned. However, if the statement is untrue, and the person knows the statement is untrue, the crime of perjury may have been committed.
If a communication is made in good faith on a subject that the communicating party has a legitimate right or interest in making the communication, such a communication could be exempt from slander liability due to a qualified privileged.
Smith, a district manager of Acme Recording Company, was investigating complaints of mismanagement of the a city office of the company. As part of his investigation he called at the home of Ann, the secretary of that office. She expressed the opinion that part of the trouble was caused by stealing of parts and equipment by Jones, another employee. Jones was later discharged and sued Ann for slander. Was she liable? No. The circumstances of the investigation, the relevance of the matter to the employer’s business, and the fact that the statement was privately told to a superior, led to the conclusion that Ann did not make the statement with malice. Because the statement was not made maliciously and was made to a representative of the employer regarding a matter within the range of corporate business, Ann was protected by a qualified privilege from liability for slander.
The media also enjoys a qualified privilege for stories that turn out to be false as long as the information was released without malice (i.e., without intent to harm) and a retraction or correction is made when the matter is brought to the attention of the publishing party.