The Definition of Libel - What Makes Something Libelous?

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Definition: Libel is published defamation of character, as opposed to spoken defamation, which is slander. Libel can expose a person to hatred, shame, disgrace, contempt or ridicule; injure a person’s reputation or cause the person to be shunned or avoided, or injure the person in his or her occupation. Libel is by definition false. If a news story is damaging to a person's reputation but is accurate in what it reports, it cannot be libelous. 

Also Known As: Defamation

Examples: Mayor Jones threatened to sue reporter Jane Smith for libel after she wrote a story detailing his incompetence and corruption.

In-depth: Everyone knows the saying "with great power comes great responsibility." That's what libel law is all about. As journalists in the United States, we have the enormous power that comes with the First Amendment's guarantee of press freedom. But that power must be exercised responsibly. Just because journalists have the power to potentially destroy people's reputations, that doesn't mean they should do so, at least not without engaging in thorough, responsible reporting.

Surprisingly, while press freedom has been enshrined in the First Amendment since the country's founding, libel law as we know it today was established relatively recently. In the early 1960s, a civil rights group placed an ad in The New York Times charging that the arrest of Martin Luther King on perjury charges in Alabama was part of a campaign to crush the civil rights movement. L. B. Sullivan, a city commissioner in Montgomery, Alabama, sued the paper for libel and was awarded $500,000 in a state court.

But the Times appealed the verdict to the U.S. Supreme Court, which overturned the state court decision. The Supreme Court said that public officials like Sullivan must prove "actual malice" in order to win a libel lawsuit. In other words, such officials would have to show that the journalists involved in producing a supposedly libelous story knew that it was false but published it anyway, or that they published it with a "reckless disregard" for whether the story was accurate.

Previously, libel litigants only had to demonstrate that the article in question was, in fact, libelous and that it had been published. Requiring public officials to prove that journalists had knowingly published something libelous made it much more difficult to win such cases.

Since the Times vs. Sullivan ruling, the law has been effectively expanded to cover not just public officials, i.e. people working in government, but also public figures, including anyone from rock stars to the CEOs of major corporations.

In short, Times vs. Sullivan made it more difficult to win libel lawsuits and effectively expanded the power of the press to investigate and write critically about those who hold positions of power and influence.

Of course, that doesn't mean reporters can't still be sued for libel. What it does mean that reporters must do meticulous reporting when they write stories that include negative information about individuals or institutions. So for instance, if you write a story claiming that the mayor of your town is illegally skimming money from the town treasury, you must have the facts to back that up. Remember, libel is by definition a falsehood, so if something is true and demonstrably true, it's not libelous.

Reporters should also understand the three common defenses against a libel lawsuit:

Truth - Since libel is by definition false, if a journalist reports something that is true it cannot be libelous, even if it damages a person’s reputation. The truth is the reporter’s best defense against a libel suit. The key is in doing solid reporting so that you can prove something is true.

Privilege - Accurate reports about official proceedings – anything from a murder trial to a city council meeting or a congressional hearing – cannot be libelous. This may seem like an odd defense, but imagine covering a murder trial without it. Conceivably, the reporter covering that trial could be sued for libel every time someone in the courtroom accused the defendant of murder.

Fair Comment & Criticism - This defense covers expressions of opinion, everything from movie reviews to columns on the op-ed page. The fair comment and criticism defense allow reporters to express opinions no matter how scathing or critical. Examples might include a rock critic ripping into the latest Beyonce CD, or a political columnist writing that she believes President Obama is doing a horrible job.


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Rogers, Tony. "The Definition of Libel - What Makes Something Libelous?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Rogers, Tony. (2020, August 28). The Definition of Libel - What Makes Something Libelous? Retrieved from Rogers, Tony. "The Definition of Libel - What Makes Something Libelous?" ThoughtCo. (accessed January 27, 2021).