What is defamation?
A statement that harms the reputation of someone else. Courts have to balance the reputation of one person with the free speech rights of the other. Statements have to be repeated to at least one third person and must have caused damage.
There are two forms of defamation: libel and slander.
Libel involves the publishing of a falsehood that harms someone.
Slander is the same doctrine applied to the spoken word. Collectively, they are referred to as defamation. Both fall under the jurisdiction of individual states, which usually require the falsehood to be intentional.
Definition of libel in California:
"A libel is a defamation expressed in written or other graphic form that tends to blacken the memory of the dead or that tends to injure a living person's reputation and thereby expose the person to public hatred, contempt or ridicule, or financial injury or to impeach any person's honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation." (California Statues, Sec. 73.001, 1995)
There are 3 categories of libel:
Statements must be facts, not ideas:
In each of these cases, the statements must be published as facts, not opinions or ideas. For example, writing, "I think that [someone] is accepting bribes." is not libel because it is published as an idea of the publisher. On the other hand, if the publisher writes, "[Someone] is accepting bribes." and the statement is proved to be false, then the publisher can be considered guilty of libel.
However, the "I think" or "I believe" clause is not always a valid exemption from libel law, if the implication is that the author is indeed attempting to convey factual information. Eric S. Freibrun observes:
"The issue of whether an allegedly defamatory statement is one of opinion or fact is one of the more difficult and common questions in a defamation suit. Courts have held that merely prefacing an otherwise defamatory statement with the words "I believe..." is not enough to eliminate the implication that the statement was intended to communicate facts."(Freibrun)
Plaintiff must prove malice:
The plaintiff must prove that some form of damage occurred from the published statement. The damage may have been tangible losses, such as the loss of a job, financial loss, or the damage may have been intangible such as the loss of reputation and respect in a community. (www.cyberlibel.com)