Libel is important to the study of tort law because it is often seen to be the last resort of would-be plaintiffs who feel they have been somehow wronged by another party but are unable to come up with sufficient grounds through any other means. However, since libel, in reality, is extremely well-defined in terms of broad strokes and, compared to other areas of law, has few unexpected twists and turns, it ought usually to be easy to determine whether a client is simply grasping at straws or not by asserting that libel occurred. For one thing, the statement must be not only written but published to be considered libel, though of course any time the paper with the information upon it changes hands, it is considered “published” using the special legal definition of the term. However, there are also elements of libel that deal in other areas of the problem.
The next few elements of libel that are required to define it deal in identification, harm, and fault. Identification revolves around whether the identity has been disguised sufficiently that a reasonable person would not detect the similarity, and it also revolves around whether the libeled party is an individual or not. A group cannot be libeled; an entity such as a corporation or a religious group can. As far as the harm category is concerned, the libel must injure the person’s reputation to be considered libel; things like disclosing that a person has a disease or is involved in illegal activity. However, generally, if the information is true, the case will not go to court as the fault clause of libel law would not be satisfied. If a person has taken only reasonable actions in the publication of the material, this is likely not libel. This area gets slightly murky as it relates to public figures.
Public figures are often considered to be people whom it is difficult to commit acts of libel against, for by their very standing in society, they will naturally draw press and other attention. Even if there are rumors of corruption such as with the NYPD. This component of libel law can sometimes be very relevant in real court cases. For example, recently in Peterson v. Grisham (2010), where a public figure attempted to seek damages against an author for his depiction of a trial involving that public figure, the claim of libel could not be supported in part because public figures have less latitude to make such claims. This is an example of the public official or public figure standard in action. However, it is also interesting to look at the ways in which companies can be harmed by these torts.
If claims of libel are raised against companies, there are many potential downsides. One such downside, of course, is that the company will now be in the public eye as participating in a court case from the defendant’s side. Many potential customers, either hearing this news on TV or reading about it in a local paper, might form the opinion that the company is automatically guilty. Thus, ironically, by taking a company to court for libel, it may be that the company’s reputation comes away far more damaged than the original plaintiff’s reputation was by the alleged libel. On occasion, this might be ground for a countersuit, depending on the circumstances surrounding the case. Overall, however, there will certainly have been an expense in terms of time, energy, and legal fees that the company puts into defending such cases. Obviously, there are many ways this area of tort law can potentially harm a company. However, one final clarification is necessary to fully explain libel and its impact on law in general, and that is to make a distinction.
Slander is closely related to libel, but it is not the same. Whereas libel focuses on the printed word, slander covers an area much broader. Slander can be anything from simple spoken words to a hand gesture, and as such is much harder to prove than libel. “Oral defamation” is also considered to be a synonym for slander. In addition, slander is defined as telling untruths, whereas the degree to which the truthfulness of a libelous statement matters varies depending upon the circumstances. Overall, companies are much more likely to be harmed by claims of libel than slander, since the latter will likely not make it to court without a great deal of supporting evidence. Libel, on the other hand, is a rather common accusation and one that is instrumental to study.
Peterson v. Grisham, 594 F.3d 723 (10th Cir. 2010).