In lieu of my typical “Question and Answer Format”, the next three legal columns will address Defamation Law.
In today’s fast-paced world, we text and we blog. We visit “chat-rooms” instead of sitting on our front porch with a neighbor, gleaning their essence through sips of lemonade. We create written and spoken threads of thought, interwoven with our emotions, our view of the “facts”, and our opinions. We comment on people and sometimes our comments are so sharp and hurtful, that an innocent observer might wonder whether a fellow human being in fact wrote the comment. We share viewpoints on timely issues, for example, whether our local West County Hospital should re-open or whether Vineyards should be regulated and encouraged to be better stewards of the water supply.
Oftentimes, we write or speak freely, without fear of consequence. After all, it is no coincidence that our founders dubbed the very FIRST Amendment to include “Freedom of Speech”. We also continue to co-exist in a society that some may argue has been “desensitized” to what at one time was found unspeakable and offensive… School shootings…Raucous language and dress.
Against this backdrop lurks a type of civil tort, called Defamation Law. Defamation Law is a tricky seesaw. It is a balancing of interests. On one end of the seesaw is the concept that no one’s life should be ruined by the telling of a lie. On the other end of the seesaw is the need for free spoken and diverse ideas and opinions. It is a very complicated area of law, but I am foolish (or brave) enough to try to distill it by writing a three part series. Part One will address the general parameters of Defamation Law and distinguish Libel and Slander. Part Two will address what one has to prove to succeed in a defamation claim. Part Three will look at interesting defamation lawsuits and how the court ruled.
Defamation is legally defined as “the offense of injuring a person’s character, fame, or reputation by false and malicious statements”, according to a dated Black’s Law Dictionary given to me in 1979 by a college-roommate when I entered law school. The essence of the definition still holds true today. In California, “Defamation” is defined by case law and by statutory law (California Civil Code sections 45, 45a, and 46).
Defamation is a broad-brushed term that includes both Libel and Slander. Libel is a remark that is in writing, such as newspaper article, a blog, or a picture. Because a libelous content is considered more permanent, given the fact it is in print, it is typically considered more harmful. Just imagine an untruthful comment being posted on the Internet and then going “viral”.
Slander is the verbal or spoken first cousin of Libel. Slander by its nature is more “transitory”, and takes the form of oral statements, such as a radio broadcast or even something spoken aloud at a staff meeting.
Public officials (like politicians) and public figures (like movie stars or professional athletes) have the least amount of protection under the defamation laws, especially since the 1964 landmark case of New York Times v. Sullivan. The case involved an unflattering newspaper article about a politician. Our U.S. Supreme Court was particularly swayed by the principle that “debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open”. The Court ruled that the First Amendment protected such remarks, unless they were made with “actual malice”. This explains in part why anyone running for office can typically cast disparaging remarks about their opponent. It also explains why the likes of Julia Roberts or Michael Jordan have limited remedies if an unflattering article is published about their lifestyle or habits.
As with any legal claim, the lawsuit must be filed in time. In California, if a defamatory statement is “published” or spoken, then a complaint must be filed within one year from when the statement was first published or spoken.
Stay tuned for Part Two next month, where we will look closely at Libel and Slander claims, what one has to prove, and some of the common defenses.
Debra A. Newby is a resident of Monte Rio and has practiced law for 32 years. She is a member of the California, Texas, and Sonoma County Bar Associations and currently maintains an active law office in Santa Rosa which emphasizes personal injury law (bicycle/motorcycle/motor vehicle accidents, dog bites, trip and falls, etc.) and expungements (clearing criminal records). Debra can be reached via email (firstname.lastname@example.org), phone (707-526-7200), or fax (526-7202).