defamation

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Related to Criminal libel: slander, Defamatory libel

Defamation

Any intentional false communication, either written or spoken, that harms a person's reputation; decreases the respect, regard, or confidence in which a person is held; or induces disparaging, hostile, or disagreeable opinions or feelings against a person.

Defamation may be a criminal or civil charge. It encompasses both written statements, known as libel, and spoken statements, called slander.

The probability that a plaintiff will recover damages in a defamation suit depends largely on whether the plaintiff is a public or private figure in the eyes of the law. The public figure law of defamation was first delineated in new york times v. sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S. Ct. 710, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964). In Sullivan, the plaintiff, a police official, claimed that false allegations about him appeared in the New York Times, and sued the newspaper for libel. The Supreme Court balanced the plaintiff's interest in preserving his reputation against the public's interest in freedom of expression in the area of political debate. It held that a public official alleging libel must prove actual malice in order to recover damages. The Court declared that the First Amendment protects open and robust debate on public issues even when such debate includes "vehement, caustic, unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." A public official or other plaintiff who has voluntarily assumed a position in the public eye must prove that defamatory statements were made with knowledge that they were false or with reckless disregard of whether they were false.

Where the plaintiff in a defamation action is a private citizen who is not in the public eye, the law extends a lesser degree of constitutional protection to defamatory statements. Public figures voluntarily place themselves in a position that invites close scrutiny, whereas private citizens who have not entered public life do not relinquish their interest in protecting their reputation. In addition, public figures have greater access to the means to publicly counteract false statements about them. For these reasons, a private citizen's reputation and privacy interests tend to outweigh free speech considerations and deserve greater protection from the courts. (See Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S. Ct. 2997, 41 L. Ed. 2d 789 [1974]).

Distinguishing between public and private figures for the purposes of defamation law is sometimes difficult. For an individual to be considered a public figure in all situations, the person's name must be so familiar as to be a household word—for example, Michael Jordan. Because most people do not fit into that category of notoriety, the Court recognized the limited-purpose public figure, who is voluntarily injected into a public controversy and becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues. Limited-purpose public figures, like public figures, have at least temporary access to the means to counteract false statements about them. They also voluntarily place themselves in the public eye and consequently relinquish some of their privacy rights. For these reasons, false statements about limited-purpose public figures that relate to the public controversies in which those figures are involved are not considered defamatory unless they meet the actual-malice test set forth in Sullivan.

Determining who is a limited-purpose public figure can also be problematic. In Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448, 96 S. Ct. 958, 47 L. Ed. 2d 154 (1976), the Court held that the plaintiff, a prominent socialite involved in a scandalous Divorce, was not a public figure because her divorce was not a public controversy and because she had not voluntarily involved herself in a public controversy. The Court recognized that the divorce was newsworthy, but drew a distinction between matters of public interest and matters of public controversy. In Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111, 99 S. Ct. 2675, 61 L. Ed. 2d 411 (1979), the Court determined that a scientist whose federally supported research was ridiculed as wasteful by Senator William Proxmire was not a limited-purpose public figure because he had not sought public scrutiny in order to influence others on a matter of public controversy, and was not otherwise well-known.

Further readings

Collins, Matthew. 2001. The Law of Defamation and the Internet. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Friedman, Jessica R. 1995. "Defamation." Fordham Law Review 64 (December).

Jones, William K. 2003. Insult to Injury: Libel, Slander, and Invasions of Privacy. Boulder, Colo.: Univ. Press of Colorado.

Smolla, Rodney A. 1999. Law of Defamation. 2d ed. St. Paul, Minn.: West Group.

Cross-references

Freedom of the Press; Libel and Slander.

defamation (of character)

n. the act of making untrue statements about another which damages his/her reputation. If the defamatory statement is printed or broadcast over the media it is libel and, if only oral, it is slander. Public figures, including officeholders and candidates have to show that the defamation was made with malicious intent and was not just fair comment. Damages for slander may be limited to actual (special) damages unless there is malice. Some statements such as an accusation of having committed a crime, having a feared disease, or being unable to perform one's occupation are called libel per se or slander and can more easily lead to large money awards in court and even punitive damage recovery by the person harmed. Most states provide for a demand for a printed retraction of defamation and only allow a lawsuit if there is no such admission of error. (See: fair comment)

defamation

noun abuse, aspersion, calumniation, calumny, denigration, derogation, detraction, disparagement, disrepute, false accusation, false publication, false report, imputation, infamy, insinuation, invective, libel, obloquy, scandal, slander, slur, smear, smirch, traducement, untruth
Associated concepts: defamation against title, defamation of business or profession, defamation of character, defamation per quod, defamation per se, defamatory publication, defamatory upon its face, defamatory words, injury to charrcter or reputation, injury to profession or business
Foreign phrases: Inveniens libellum famosum et non corrumpens punitur.A person who finds a libel and does not destroy it is punished.
See also: aspersion, denunciation, dishonor, hatred, infamy, libel, malediction, obloquy, opprobrium, phillipic, scandal, shame, slander, vilification

defamation

a form of wrong done by words. A defamatory statement is one that tends to lower the plaintiff in the minds of right-thinking people. In England there is a technical distinction in the law of defamation between libel and slander. Libel refers to a permanent form such as print and slander to a transient form such as speech. Some Australian states have abolished the distinction between slander and libel. In England, but not in Scotland, the statement complained of must be communicated to a person other than the plaintiff The essence, however, is that the statement must be defamatory, as above defined. If it has this special quality, then it is not essential that the plaintiff should prove malice, making the effective onus fall on the defendant. For example, to allege a person is a criminal or behaves immorally is defamatory. To be actionable, the statement must be false, and this is resolved in court by the defendant pleading justification (or veritas in Scotland). The Defamation Act 1952 makes it unnecessary for the defendant to show that every charge is true so long as those that remain false do not materially injure the plaintiff ‘s reputation. Communication has been established by many means, including film and effigy or by the Internet. It is open to the plaintiff to innuendo a statement, that is, to show that a statement which is not, on the face of it, defamatory, actually has a defamatory meaning. The plaintiff must state in words in his pleadings what this meaning is. A statement in a foreign language always requires an innuendo. Of practical importance are the other defences. Absolute privilege protects certain communications - parliamentary proceedings, judicial proceedings and official communications.

The Defamation Act 1996 allows absolute privilege to fair and accurate contemporaneous reports of judicial proceedings in newspapers and in broadcasts. Qualified privilege is more subtle. It protects (subject to the qualification discussed later) statements made in certain circumstances. The categories are not closed, but among those that have been recognized are included statements in pursuance of a duty, in protection of an interest, and fair and accurate reports by any means of proceedings of public and semipublic bodies. Some categories of statement are given qualified privilege and others qualified privilege subject to explanation or contradictions. The qualified nature of qualified privilege is that the maker of the false defamatory statement is protected only if there is not actual malice - in other words, the defence really only takes away the presumption of malice inherent in a defamatory statement. The House of Lords has recognized a form of qualified privilege open to responsible journalism. Fair comment is another frequently used defence, but it depends upon the matter being shown to be a comment on facts truly stated. People are allowed to be most vehement in such comment. It has recently been called honest comment in the House of Lords. It does not forgive false statements. The matter must be one of some public interest.

The Defamation Act 1996 gives a publisher, including, for example, an Internet service provider, a defence where it neither knew nor had reason to know that a statement was defamatory of the person complaining. However, there must be an offer of amends, that is, to publish a correction and apology and to pay such compensation as may be agreed.

DEFAMATION, tort. The speaking slanderous words of a person so as, de bona fama aliquid detrahere, to hurt his good fame. Vide Slander.
     2. In the United States, the remedy for defamation is by an action on the case, where the words are slanderous.
     3. In England, besides the remedy by action, proceedings may be instituted in the ecclesiastical court for redress of the injury. The punishment for defamation, in this court, is payment of costs and penance enjoined at the discretion of the judge. When the slander has been privately uttered, the penance may be ordered to be performed in a private place; when publicly uttered, the sentence must be public, as in the church of the parish of the defamed party, in time of divine service,, and the defamer may be required publicly to pronounce that by such words, naming them, as set forth in the sentence, he had defamed the plaintiff, and, therefore, that he begs pardon, first, of God, and then of the party defamed, for uttering such words. Clerk's Assist. 225; 3 Burn's Eccl. Law, Defamation, pl. 14; 2 Chit. Pr. 471 Cooke on Def.

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It used to be thought that a distinctive feature of, and indeed the primary justification for, criminal libel was that it was available only where publication was likely to provoke a breach of the peace, but the House of Lords has held that the actual test is whether the libel is 'sufficiently serious to justify, in the public interest, the institution of criminal proceedings'.
It makes it hard for us to argue that Croatia should get rid of their criminal libel laws while, say, Ireland, still has it on their books," she said.
As Justice William Brennan observed in his opinion in Garrison, criminal libel is an antiquated legal concept going back to the days when, if someone maligned you, your impulse would be to challenge him to a duel rather than sue him in civil court and drive him into bankruptcy Insults were believed to be so incendiary that they could incite the uneducated masses to take up arms and riot in the streets.
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In England and Wales it is a crime to give a false character reference, and it can even be a criminal libel, punishable with imprisonment, if it is calculated to lead to a breach of the peace.
He laughed when it was suggested he could lose the criminal libel case brought by the Ecclestones.