What Is Libel?

Libel involves the act of publishing a statement about an individual, either in written form or by broadcast over media platforms such as radio, television, or the Internet, that is untrue and threatens to harm the reputation and/or livelihood of the targeted person. Libel is considered a civil wrong (tort) and can, therefore, be the basis of a lawsuit.

Key Takeaways

  • Libel is a category of defamation that includes defamatory statements that are published or broadcast.
  • Libel is a tort under common law for which a defamed party can sue for damages.
  • Pure opinions, true statements, and some criticism of public figures may be protected against claims of libel.

Understanding Libel

Libel represents the published or broadcasted version of defamation. Defamation occurs when an individual's words damage another person’s reputation or tarnish their ability to earn a living. Persons who commit libel can be subjected to civil, and in the past criminal, penalties.

In the U.S., libel was once considered an area of unprotected speech not covered by First Amendment freedoms, along with obscenity and fighting words. This changed over the course of the 20th century as court decisions began to favor free speech over the protection of those damaged by potentially defamatory speech.

The offending statement in question must purport to be factual and not opinion-based. This is generally a strong defense, but this does not mean that by simply preceding a statement with the words “I think,” an individual is safeguarded from the possibility of committing libelous actions. For example, if someone wrote and published the sentence, “I think Sam murdered their spouse,” that individual is nonetheless vulnerable to libel, even though this statement was technically framed as a belief. Indeed, this phrase suggests that the individual had a solid basis in which to believe that the statement is factual.

For someone to be found guilty of committing libel, the target of the offending comments does not necessarily have to claim to be harmed as the result of the published statement. Several types of defamatory statements are considered damaging in themselves regardless of whether they can be shown to have resulted in actual harm. These include allegations of criminal activity, statements that someone has a contagious disease, accusations of sexual misconduct, and allegations of unprofessional or improper business conduct.

Separately, it is generally more difficult for public figures to sue for libel than it is for private parties to bring legal action in the wake of similar comments. This is mainly due to a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court requiring the libel to demonstrate "actual malice" in order for a public figure to sue. Modest factual inaccuracies, such as incorrectly stating a person's age, height, or weight, do not constitute libelous activity.

Lastly, truth is recognized as a complete defense against complaints of defamation. Depending on the jurisdiction a defamatory statement may be presumed to be false, in which case the defendant can raise an affirmative defense if they can show it is substantially true, or the burden may be on the plaintiff to that an allegedly defamatory statement is in fact false in order to prove their claim. Either way, a true statement can be protected against claims of defamation.

Differences Between Online Libel and Slander

The chief difference between slander and libel is that the former involves defamatory speech, while the latter focuses on defamatory writings. Interestingly, although defamatory content presented on websites was originally considered to be libelous and not slanderous, that view has shifted, largely due to the English courts, which opine that Internet content is more commensurate with speech than it is with traditional print media.

From a strictly legal perspective, defamatory comments are not actionable unless they are properly published. Unfortunately for ill-intended bloggers, the term “published,” in the context of Internet communication, legally means that merely a single individual must read the offensive blog in question. Consequently, a webmaster may be sued for libeling someone by trashing their reputation on a personal blog, if only their best pal, a colleague, or a family member consumes the defamatory words.

Of course, personal blogs are typically far less trafficked than mainstream websites, such as the BBC News official site, and other large platforms. Therefore, that first group is more apt to get away with the defamation—not only because the words may slip by unnoticed, but also because the target of the libel may be reluctant to file suit against the offending blogger, lest a public court case bring even more attention to the slurs in question.