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

Unlike the slander laws, which focus on defamatory speech, libel laws center on defamatory writings. Interestingly, while defamatory rhetoric expressed on websites was previously deemed to be libelous, as opposed to slanderous, that thinking has slowly evolved, thanks to views of the English courts, which opine that internet content is more commensurate with speech, than it is with traditional print media.

Legally speaking, defamatory statements are not actionable unless they are published. Unfortunately for malicious bloggers, the term “published”, in the context of internet communication, legally means that only one person must read the offensive posting. Therefore, a webmaster may be sued for libeling someone by trashing their reputation on a personal blog, if just a single person accesses the defamatory words. 

Of course, personal blogs are typically far less trafficked than mainstream websites, such as the BBC News official site. 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.