What is 'Libel'

Libel involves publishing a statement about someone in written form or via broadcast (for example, on radio, television or Internet) that is untrue and would harm the reputation or livelihood of that person.

Libel is considered a civil wrong (tort) and can be the basis of a lawsuit.

BREAKING DOWN 'Libel'

Libel represents the published (or broadcast) version of defamation. Defamation occurs when someone’s words hurt another person’s reputation or livelihood.

The statement made must claim to be fact (not opinion). Stating, “I think” does not eliminate the possibility of libel. A case could be made that someone who wrote and published, “I think Jane Smith killed her mother,” has committed libel by suggesting he or she has reason to believe something that may not be true.

Whether a published statement is libel does depend on the person claiming to have been harmed. Public figures have more difficulty proving libel than private parties because of a U.S. Supreme Court decision requiring the libel to show "actual malice" in order for a public figure to be able to sue. Minor factual errors (getting a person’s age wrong, for example) would not be considered libel.

Differences Between Online Libel and Slander

Libel law is concerned with defamatory writings. The law of slander is concerned with defamatory speech. There are some key differences in the laws relating to slander and libel that should be understood. It used to be thought that defamatory statements on any website would always be libellous rather than slanderous. However, English courts have taken the view that some internet communications are more akin to speech than the traditional print, and that slander, rather than libel, should apply to those situations. 

A defamatory statement is not actionable unless it is published. Unfortunately for webmasters, when libel lawyers say "published," they mean communicated to one person (not including the person defamed). You can libel someone by writing about them on a personal blog, provided at least one person accesses the defamatory material. That is not to say that a defamatory publication on a personal blog carries the same risk as a defamatory publication on, say, the BBC website. Libels on high-traffic sites are more likely to be discovered by the person attacked than libels on low-traffic sites. Also, potential libel claimants may let a libel pass if it hasn't been widely disseminated, knowing that a court case would itself ensure the widest possible audience for the slur.

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