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Nothing is more important than your reputation. The way people perceive you allows you to conduct business, build trust in relationships, and participate in social organizations and public activities. When someone says or publishes something that threatens your reputation, your livelihood and social standing can suffer. 

At the same time, most Americans recognize the importance and value of protections provided to free speech under the First Amendment. As a society, we understand why it’s necessary for people to freely state their opinions without fear, particularly about their own experiences. However, a person’s right to say what they’d like should not lead to another person’s reputation being unjustly damaged. 

Defamation Defined

Defamation is the legal term used to describe words spoken or statements made that hurt someone's reputation. If the statement is spoken, it’s referred to as slander. If it is in writing, it is referred to as libel. Both slander and libel are considered civil wrongs, also known as a tort. This means that the person who was harmed by the statement can sue the person who made the statement in civil court and be awarded money damages and even an injunction. 

In order to win a defamation lawsuit, you must be able to show that: 

  • Someone made a statement about you;
  • At least one other people heard, saw, or read the statement;
  • The statement was false;
  • The statement harmed you; and
  • The statement did not fall into a category that would make it allowable.

Public figures often have a more difficult time winning defamation cases because our laws protect people who share their opinions, even mean-spirited opinions, about elected officials and celebrities. For public figures to win a defamation suit, they must show that not only was a statement false and harmful, but also that the person intended to induce harm by making the statement. For people who are not in the public spotlight, the intent to harm (“malice”) is not necessary

Online Defamation

With the ease of any member of the public to host their own blog or post on a social media site, it has become easier than ever for people to post their opinions online for mass consumption. Coupled with search engines cataloging every website they can find, it is hard to prevent less than favorable comments from making it into the public eye.

This has lead to a slew of new avenues for defamation including:

  • Revenge porn;
  • Review bombing;
  • Public letters to the editor;
  • Blog content and comments; or
  • Private and workplace chat services (Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Hangouts).

Some websites and services do canvas their content for illegal or inflammatory content, but making a determination as to what is defamatory is beyond their ability. This means that those posts do make it past standard censorship.

Things to remember when interacting online:

  1. Something posted on the internet will not truly disappear
  2. Content you post is often owned by the site you are posting on and can be shared without your permission
  3. People you interact with may not be who they present themselves to be

Whether you are a victim of defamation or are accused of defaming someone, the most important thing to know is that, due to rapid advancements in technology, this is a complex and evolving area of law.