Defamation, or libel, is a tort (a civil wrong) for which the aggrieved party may sue for money damages. There is no federal libel law. State libel laws are subject to the First Amendment limitations imposed by the Supreme Court.

In New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), the Supreme Court recognized that protection of reputation could impact the freedom of speech and press. To protect expression, the Court imposed constitutional rules that make it very difficult for a plaintiff to make a successful libel claim. (To read more on the case go here).

Defamation law requires the plaintiff to prove that a defamatory statement is false. Opinion and satire is constitutionally protected because it is not provably false and it cannot be reasonably interpreted as presenting actual facts.

State law provides some additional (and varying) protections for defendants, such as the privilege of fairly and accurately reporting defamatory information from public records and government proceedings.

A plaintiff must prove the following:

  1. Defamatory language: The communication must injure a person’s reputation, exposing him to hatred, ridicule, or contempt. Typical statements include accusations of crime, negative discussion of a person’s character, criticism of business practices, and disparagement of a commercial product.
  2. Harm, or damages: The defamatory statement must cause harm, such as to a person’s or corporation’s reputation or to their financial situation.
  3. Identification: The person must have been identified by name or is otherwise clearly identifiable.
  4. Published: The defamatory statement must be published or broadcast. Publication can be to just one person (other than the publisher and plaintiff), but libel actions typically involve mass communication.
  5. Falsity: Public officials and public figures must prove that the defamatory statement was false. Private persons must prove falsity when the defamatory statement involves a matter of public concern. Minor errors such as wrong dates or places are generally not considered substantial enough themselves to meet this standard of falsity as long as the overall statement is substantially true.
  6. Fault: Even false, defamatory statements are protected under the First Amendment unless the plaintiff can also prove that the statements were published with fault. Public officials and public figures must prove a very high level of fault—that the defendant knew it was false and published it anyway (intentional falsehood) or had a high degree of awareness of probable falsehood and published anyway (reckless disregard). By contrast, a private person must prove a lower level of fault that may vary depending on the state, but not less than negligence or carelessness. Given fault requirements, public officials and public figures have a difficult time winning a libel case; private persons, having to prove only careless false statements, have an easier time.