Slander: Legal Definition, Example, Difference From Libel

What Is Slander?

The term slander refers to false statements made by one party against another. Slander is communicated verbally with the intent to defame the subject of the statements. Put simply, slander is a legal term used to describe defamation or the act of harming a person or business's reputation by telling one or more people something that is untrue and damaging about them.

Slander can be the basis for a lawsuit but must be proven by the subject in civil court. Slander is often compared with libel, which is written defamation instead of oral.

Key Takeaways

  • Slander is the legal term used to describe false statements made by one party against another.
  • It is a form of defamation that is communicated verbally to a third party, which makes it temporary.
  • The subject of slanderous statements can pursue legal action against the slanderer(s).
  • Slander can be hard to prove as the complainant must show the slanderer was driven by malice and knew their claims were false.
  • Slander is different from libel, which are false statements made through print or broadcast.

How Slander Works

While everyone has (or should have) a fundamental right to freely speak their minds, your freedom of expression is not absolute. In fact, most legal systems set limits on what you can say especially if you make claims about someone that are not true.

Slander represents any form of defamation that is communicated verbally. Defamation occurs when someone’s words cause harm to another person’s reputation or livelihood. A statement must be presented as fact, not opinion, in order to be considered slander. The statement must be made to a third party.

There are consequences for making statements that you know are untrue. Defamation falls under tort law, which is the branch of law that deals with civil matters. It aims to address wrongdoing against parties and may award them with monetary compensation. As such, anyone who is the subject of slanderous statements, whether verbal or written, may be able to present their case in civil court. If you are found guilty of committing slander, you could be ordered to pay compensatory damages to the complainant.

Proving Slander

Slander may be difficult to prove in court. The burden of proof rests on the complainant. As noted above, aggrieved parties must be able to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that slanderous statements were made with malice to a third party and that they were made with malice. Complainants must also prove that the party committing the act of slander believed they were conveying a fact. This is often very difficult to do.

Public figures may have a harder time proving slander than private individuals because these people have to prove actual malice existed when the statement(s) was made. This means the complainant must prove clearly and effectively that the slanderer must have known that the statement(s) was false and did so in a reckless manner.

Slander vs. Libel

People often confuse slander and libel. Although both involve defamation, there are some key distinctions between the two. Remember that a slanderous statement is a form of verbal defamation. As such, it is considered temporary since it involves speech rather than being written or published.

Libel, on the other hand, is printed or broadcast on television, on the radio, or online. Although broadcast typically involves spoken words, it is considered libel because, in theory, it reaches a large audience just as written words do, making it less temporary.

From a strictly legal perspective, defamatory comments are not considered to be libelous unless they are properly published. This means even statements made on a blog with very little traffic can be considered libelous. In the context of internet communications, even a single individual must read the offensive post or comment in question for it to be considered libel.

Imagine writing a blog comment asserting that its author received a dishonorable discharge from the military. If the statement is true, there is no claim of defamation. But you may be guilty of defamation if that claim is false, especially if you made the assertion with the intention of discrediting the author. The owner of the blog can sue you for damages if they can prove you made the comments maliciously. Keep in mind that the blog's owner may not care what other people believe even if your claims are false, which renders the assertion not defamatory.

Real-World Example of Slander

In 2004, actor David Schwimmer filed a $2 million lawsuit against a fundraiser who accused him of making unfounded demands before appearing at a charity event in 1997. Schwimmer, who appeared on the show "Friends," filed a defamation suit against Aaron Tonken.

According to Schwimmer, Tonken publicly stated that Schwimmer asked for two Rolex watches as compensation for the time he devoted to a fundraiser. He claimed that the allegations were false and ruined his reputation. The lawsuit was settled in 2006. Schwimmer was awarded $400,000 in damages.

Is Slander a Crime?

Slander is a form of oral defamation, and defamation is considered a civil wrong (i.e., a tort) in the U.S. and other jurisdictions. This means that you cannot file a criminal complaint accusing slander, but may instead file a lawsuit.

Is Slander the Same as Defamation?

Slander is a form of defamation. Defamation refers to anything communicated, either verbally or in print, that harms another person's reputation or livelihood. The statement must be presented as fact rather than opinion for it to be considered defamation. Written defamation is called libel. You may find libelous statements in various places, such as newspapers, magazines, blogs, the comment section, chat rooms, and letters to the editor.

How Do You Sue for Slander?

Slander is not covered under the First Amendment. This means that you cannot knowingly make defamatory comments against someone else. If someone has defamed you, you can sue them for slander. Since it falls under tort law, you can pursue your case in civil court and seek monetary damages. You must bring proof of the defamation. It's a good idea to bring witnesses, including the person/people to whom the statements were made.

Is It Hard to Prove Slander?

The burden of proof is on the complainant to demonstrate slander occurred. But proving it can often be difficult for a number of reasons. Complainants must prove the slanderer made these statements with malice and knew their claims were false. And since slander is communicated verbally, the temporary nature may make it even harder to prove.

The Bottom Line

The First Amendment protects everyone's right to freedom of speech. But just because the Constitution guarantees that right, it doesn't mean you can say whatever you like without any consequences. In fact, it is illegal to make statements about someone that you know are blatantly false, and if you do this intentionally while speaking to someone. This act is referred to as slander.

If the subject of the slander and their reputation suffer because of your actions, you may be taken to court. And you may have to pay monetary damages if they can prove you defamed them.

Article Sources
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