Accountable for Libel
Libel law holds the media accountable for its accurate portrayal of one’s reputation. The opportunity for defamation through spoken word or writing increased because of the ease and speed of communication in the present day. However, there are six factors a plaintiff must show proof of in court to win their libel lawsuit.
A false statement of fact must be asserted for one to consider it libelous. A fact is a statement, which has evidence one can use to prove it true. For example, one may claim, “Bob stole a car on Thursday.” One could take measures to use this statement to hurt Bob’s reputation. People may believe Bob is a thief, but one could also prove this statement is false. However, if one turns a statement of fact into an opinion, one cannot consider it as a libelous “because an opinion cannot be false” (Trager 163). For instance, one may say, “I think Bob stole that car because it looks very nice.” This is a subjective claim one cannot prove true. Another element a plaintiff must have to win their libel lawsuit is proof that a third party published the statement.
One publishes a statement anytime they print, broadcast over the airwaves, or post the defamatory statement to the internet. For one to consider a statement published, “only one person in addition to the source and subject of the allegedly defamatory statement must have seen or heard the information in question” (Trager 163). For example, someone may hear a defamatory statement on television or read it in a magazine. If a person can understand the meaning of the communicated information, the courts deem the statement as published. Additionally, a person who republishes libelous information “can be held just as responsible as the originator” (Trager 163). If one does not add new content to the original product, they are not responsible for a new publication. Therefore, retweets or adding a share button to online archived articles are not considered republication. The third element to prove a libel lawsuit is that a defendant must intend to concern the plaintiff.
A reasonable person must understand the statement refers to the plaintiff. The statement may identify the plaintiff by name, with an image, or within the context, which one can infer the identity. If someone publishes a defamatory statement about a small-sized group, the author could be held accountable for defaming the plaintiff belonging to the group. For example, someone may have said, "The Vice President of the Art Club bribed the professor of the course for a higher grade on their painting.” If one assumes there is a singular vice president of the club, mentioning the individual’s title may be enough to assume the identity of the plaintiff. Additionally, the statement about the plaintiff must be defamatory.
Libel per se is when the nature of a statement does not need further explanation as to why it is reputation damaging. For example, a man received a monetary award when he brought a claim against a woman’s defamatory statements who accused him of “assault, battery, false imprisonment, and intentional infliction of emotional distress” (FindLaw). These statements attribute the plaintiff's involvement with a criminal, unethical, or unprofessional activity, which “as a matter of law; on its face and without further proof” harmed them (Trager 169). In contrast, when one introduces additional facts to prove defamation occurred, one engages in libel per quod. For instance, a photo of a celebrity who wore a coat made of an endangered animal’s fur circulates on social media. Although the image portrays a person who tried to keep warm, if many viewers knew the type of fur the coat is made of, then the image would purport the celebrity’s involvement in the illegal fur trade. Businesses and trade products also have reputations, which when damaged, could “impair their ability to conduct business” or generate revenue (Trager 173). While the statement may be defamatory, for one to consider it libelous, it must be false.
Rather than the defendant proving the statement is true, the plaintiff must demonstrate the statement is false. For example, if a news article reported the plaintiff, Bob, drove away in a red car after he robbed the bank, Bob would have to prove he did not partake in these actions. However, not every detail must be true in the statement as “minor inaccuracies do not amount to falsity so long as the substance, the gist, the sting of the libelous charge can be justified” (Trager 175). Therefore, if the news article reported Bob drove away in a red car after he robbed a bank when Bob drove away in a yellow car after he robbed a bank, the statement remains substantially true and is not considered defamatory. Additionally, statements or images taken out of context, which are factually correct, may also create libelous messages by implication. A false, published statement about the plaintiff must harm them for one to consider it libelous.
The plaintiff must prove the ramifications of the statement caused damage or harm, usually to their reputation. For instance, if the defendant claimed the plaintiff committed a dishonest action, the plaintiff would have to prove the statement caused them to lose their job, as well as financial harm because their employer doubted their trustworthiness. Additionally, harm can extend to emotional or physical distress if “the remarks are extreme and outrageous if the person who made the statements knew or should have known the plaintiff was particularly susceptible to emotional distress” (Trager 195). The plaintiff may receive compensation for mental or physical health problems as a result of the defamation. The status of the plaintiff, public or private figure, determines the type of fault they must prove the defendant acted with to win their libel lawsuit.
A plaintiff must prove the defendant acted with actual malice or negligence. The defendant acted with actual malice if they knew the statement, which they published beforehand was false, or they published the statement even though they doubted its legitimacy. For example, a section of the book, American Sniper, written by former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle claimed he “decked [Jesse] Ventura in a bar fight in California in 2006, after the former governor allegedly criticized the SEALs” (Neil). In 2014, public official, Jesse Ventura, had to prove actual malice on part of Kyle in a defamation case to prove the falsity of Kyle’s story and reclaim his reputation among an upcoming generation of SEALs. Since public officials and figures “have access to the media to correct damage to their reputation,” they must show the defendant acted with actual malice (Trager 209). In contrast, private figures must prove negligence, which is a lower standard compared to actual malice.
A private figure does not ask for public attention. Therefore, they must prove the defendant acted with negligence to recover damages. Negligence occurred when a publisher failed to verify the truth before publishing the statement. For example, say Restaurant Owner A published an article, which claimed customers of Restaurant Owner B’s fell ill with food poisoning after they purposely served contaminated romaine lettuce rather than offer an alternative leafy green to save on food waste costs. Restaurant Owner B would have to prove his business and reputation suffered because of the false information Restaurant Owner A spread. The plaintiff must prove the defendant did not follow ethical journalism practices such as conducting thorough research, using trustworthy sources or fact-checked questionable information. A successful libel lawsuit for the plaintiff will occur if they can prove these six elements.
An individual’s reputation is important. No matter the form a libelous statement takes, a libel plaintiff must prove the published, false, defamatory statement references the plaintiff, and they suffered harm because the defendant acted with actual malice or negligence. The plaintiff must meet these requirements to win their libel lawsuit and repair their reputation if it gets damaged.
FindLaw. “Judy MacDONALD, Appellant, v. Jack RIGGS and Merle G. Wilson, Apellees.”
Thomas Reuters, https://caselaw.findlaw.com/ak-supreme-court/1128184.html Accessed 13 Oct. 2019
Neil, Martha. “Jesse Ventura wins $1.8M in actual-malice defamation trial over best-selling
memoir.” ABA Journal, http://www.abajournal.com/news/article/jesse_ventura_wins_1.8m_in_actual-malice_libel_trial_over_best-selling_amer Accessed 14 Oct. 2019