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1) n. to publish in print (including pictures), writing or broadcast through radio, television or film, an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation, by tending to bring the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of others. Libel is the written or broadcast form of defamation, distinguished from slander which is oral defamation. It is a tort (civil wrong) making the person or entity (like a newspaper, magazine or political organization) open to a lawsuit for damages by the person who can prove the statement about him/her was a lie. Publication need only be to one person, but it must be a statement which claims to be fact, and is not clearly identified as an opinion. While it is sometimes said that the person making the libelous statement must have been intentional and malicious, actually it need only be obvious that the statement would do harm and is untrue. Proof of malice, however, does allow a party defamed to sue for "general damages" for damage to reputation, while an inadvertent libel limits the damages to actual harm (such as loss of business) called "special damages." "Libel per se" involves statements so vicious that malice is assumed and does not require a proof of intent to get an award of general damages. Libel against the reputation of a person who has died will allow surviving members of the family to bring an action for damages. Most states provide for a party defamed by a periodical to demand a published retraction. If the correction is made, then there is no right to file a lawsuit. Governmental bodies are supposedly immune for actions for libel on the basis that there could be no intent by a non-personal entity, and further, public records are exempt from claims of libel. However, there is at least one known case in which there was a financial settlement as well as a published correction when a state government newsletter incorrectly stated that a dentist had been disciplined for illegal conduct. The rules covering libel against a "public figure" (particularly a political or governmental person) are special, based on U. S. Supreme Court decisions. The key is that to uphold the right to express opinions or fair comment on public figures, the libel must be malicious to constitute grounds for a lawsuit for damages. Minor errors in reporting are not libel, such as saying Mrs. Jones was 55 when she was only 48, or getting an address or title incorrect. 2) v. to broadcast or publish a written defamatory statement. (See: defamation, slander, libel per se, public figure)

Copyright © 1981-2005 by Gerald N. Hill and Kathleen T. Hill. All Right reserved.


1 a form of DEFAMATION.
2 in Scots practice the details of a criminal charge.
Collins Dictionary of Law © W.J. Stewart, 2006

LIBEL, practice. A libel has been defined to be "the plaintiff's petition or allegation, made and exhibited in a judicial process, with some solemnity of law;" it is also, said to be "a short and well ordered writing, setting forth in a clear manner, as well to the judge as to the defendant, the plaintiff's or accuser's intention in judgment." It is a written statement by a plaintiff, of his cause of action, and of the relief he seeks to obtain in a suit. Law's Eccl. Law, 147; Ayl. Par. 346; Shelf. on M. & D. 506; Dunl. Admr. Pr. 111; Betts. Adm. Pr. 17; Proct. Pr. h.t.; 2 Chit. Pr. 487, 533.
     2. The libel should be a narrative, specious, clear, direct, certain, not general, nor alternative. 3 Law's Eccl. Law. 147. It should contain, substantially, the following requisites: 1. The name, description, and addition of the plaintiff, who makes his demand by bringing his action. 2 The name, description, and addition of the defendant. 3. The name of the judge with a respectful designation of his office and court. 4. The thing or relief, general or special, which is demanded in the suit. 5. The grounds upon which the suit is founded. All these things are summed up in Latin, as follows;

     Quis, quid, coram quo, quo jure petitur, et a quo,

     Recte compositus quique libellus habet:
which has been translated,
     Each plaintiff and defendant's name,

     and eke the judge who tries the same,

     The thing demanded and the right whereby

     You urge to have it granted instantly:

     He doth a libel write and well compose,

     Who forms the same, emitting none of those.

     3. The form of a libel is either simple or articulate. The simple form is, when the cause of action is stated in a continuous narration, when the cause of action can be briefly set forth. The articulate form, is when the cause of action is stated in distinct allegations, or articles. 2 Law's Eccl. Law, 148; Hall's Adm. Pr. 123; 7 Cranch, 349. The material facts should be stated in distinct articles in the libel, with as much exactness and attention to times and circumstances, as in a declaration at common law. 4 Mason, 541. Pompous diction and strong epithets are out of place in a legal paper designed to obtain the admission of the opposite party of the averments it contains, or to lay before the court the facts which the actor will prove.
     4. Although there is no fixed formula for libels and the court will receive such an instrument from the party in such form as his own skill or that of his counsel may enable him to give it, yet long usage has sanctioned forms, which it may be most prudent to adopt. The parts and arrangement of libels commonly employed are,
     5.-1. The address to the court; as, To the Honorable John K. Kane, Judge of the district court of the United States, within and for the eastern district of Pennsylvania.
     6.-2. The names and descriptions of the parties. Persons competent to sue at common law may be parties libellants, and similar regulations obtain in the admiralty courts and the common law courts, respecting those disqualified from suing in their own right or name. Married women prosecute by their husbands, or by prochein ami, when the husband has an adverse interest to hers; minors, by guardians, tutors, or prochein ami; lunatics and persons non compos mentis, by tutor, guardian ad litem, or committee; the rights of deceased persons are prosecuted by executors or administrators; and corporations are represented, and proceeded against as at common law.
     7.-3. The averments or allegations setting forth the cause of action should be conformable to the truth, and so framed as to correspond with the evidence. Every fact requisite to establish the libellant's right should be clearly stated, so that it may be directly met by the opposing party by admission, denial or avoidance; this is the more necessary because no proof can be given, or decree rendered, not covered by and conformable to the allegations. 1 Law's Eccl. Laws, 150; Hall's Pr. 126; Dunl. Adm. Pr. 113; 7 Cranch, 394.
     8.-4. The conclusion, or prayer for relief and process; the prayer should be for the specific relief desired; for general relief, as is usual in bills in chancery; the conclusion should also pray for general, or particular process. Law's Eccl. Law, 149; and see 3 Mason, R. 503. Interrogatories are sometimes annexed to the libel; when this is the case, there is usually a special prayer, that the defendant may be required to answer the libel, and the interrogatories annexed and propounded. This, however, is a dangerous practice, because it renders the answers of the defendant evidence, which must be disproved by two witnesses, or by one witness, corroborated by very strong circumstances.
     9. The libel is the first proceeding in a suit in admiralty in the courts of the United States. 3 Mason, R., 504. It is also used in some other courts. Vide, generally, Dunl. Adm. Pr. ch. 3; Bett's Adm. Pr. s. 3; Shelf. on. M. & D. 606; Hall's Adm. Pr. Index, h.t.; 3 Bl. Com. 100; Ayl. Par. Index, h.t.; Com. Dig. Admiralty, E; 2 Roll. &b. 298.

LIBEL, libellus, criminal law. A malicious defamation expressed either in printing or writing, or by signs or pictures, tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead, with intent to provoke the living; or the reputation of one who is alive, and to expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule. Hawk. b. 1, c. 73, s. 1; Wood's Inst, 444; 4 Bl. Com. 150; 2 Chitty, Cr. Law, 867; Holt on Lib. 73; 5 Co. 125; Salk. 418; Ld. Raym. 416; 4. T. R. 126; 4 Mass. R. 168; 9 John. 214; 1 Den. Rep. 347; 2 Pick. R. 115; 2 Kent, Com. 13. It has been defined perhaps with more precision to be a censorious or ridiculous writing, picture or sign made with a malicious or mischievous intent, towards government magistrates or individuals. 3 John. Cas. 354; 9 John. R. 215; 5 Binn. 340.
     2. In briefly considering this offence, we will inquire, 1st. By what mode of expression a libel may be conveyed. 2d. Of what kind of defamation it must consist. 3d. How plainly it must be expressed. 4th. What mode of publication is essential.
     3.-1. The reduction of the slanderous matter to writing, or printing, is the most usual mode of conveying it. The exhibition of a picture, intimating that which in print would be libelous, is equally criminal. 2 Camp. 512; 5 Co. 125; 2 Serg. & Rawle 91. Fixing a gallows at a man's door, burning him in effigy, or exhibiting him in any ignominious manner, is a libel. Hawk. b. 1, c. 73, s. 2,; 11 East, R. 227.
     4.-2. There is perhaps no branch of the law which is so difficult to reduce to exact, principles, or to compress within a small compass, as the requisites of a libel. All publications denying the Christian religion to be true; 11 Serg. & Rawle, 394; Holt on Libels, 74; 8 Johns. R. 290; Vent. 293; Keb. 607; all writings subversive of morality and tending to inflame the passions by indecent language, are indictable at common law. 2 Str. 790; Holt on Libels, 82; 4 Burr. 2527. In order to constitute a libel, it is not necessary that anything criminal should be imputed to the party injured; it is enough if the writer has exhibited him in a ludicrous point of view; has pointed him out as an object of ridicule or disgust; has, in short, done that which has a natural tendency to excite him to revenge. 2 Wils. 403; Bacon's Abr. Libel, A 2; 4 Taunt. 355; 3 Camp. 214; Hardw. 470; 5 Binn. 349. The case of Villars v. Monsley, 2 Wils. 403, above cited, was grounded upon the following verses, which were held to be libelous, namely:

"Old-Villers, so strong of brimstone you smell,
As if not long since you had got out of hell,
But this damnable smell I no longer can bear,
Therefore I desire you would come no more here;
You, old stinking; old nasty, old itchy, old toad,
If you come any more you shall pay for your board,
You'll therefore take this as a warning from me,
And never enter the doors, while they belong to J. P.
Wilncot, December 4, 1767."

     5. Libels against the memory of the dead which have a tendency to create a breach of the peace by inciting the friends and relatives of the deceased to avenge the insult of the family, render their authors liable to legal animadversion. 5 co. 123; 5 Binn. 281; 2 Chit. Cr. Law, 868; 4 T. R. 186.
     6.-3. If the matter be understood as scandalous, and is calculated to excite ridicule or abhorrence against the party intended, it is libelous, however it may be expressed. 5 East, 463; 1 Price, 11, 17; Hob. 215; Chit. Cr. Law, 868; 2 Campb. 512.
     7.-4. The malicious reading of a libel to one or more persons, it being on the shelves in a bookstore, as other books, for sale; and where the defendant directed the libel to be printed, took away some and left others; these several acts have been held to be publications. The sale of each copy; where several copies have been sold, is a distinct publication, and a fresh offence. The publication must be malicious; evidence of the malice may be either express or implied. Express proof is not necessary: for where a man publishes a writing which on the face of it is libelous, the law presumes he does so from that malicious intention which constitutes the offence, and it is unnecessary, on the part of the prosecution, to prove any circumstance from which malice may be inferred. But no allegation, however false and malicious, contained in answers to interrogatories, in affidavits duly made, or any other proceedings, in courts of justice, or petitions to the legislature, are indictable. 4 Co. 14; 2 Burr. 807; Hawk. B. 1, c. 73, s. 8; 1 Saund. 131, n. 1; 1 Lev. 240; 2 Chitty's Cr. Law, 869; 2 Serg. & Rawle, 23. It is no defence that the matter published is part of a document printed by order of the house of commons. 9 A. &E. 1.
     8. The publisher of a libel is liable to be punished criminally by indictment; 2 Chitty's Cr. Law, 875; or is subject to an action on the case by the party grieved. Both remedies may be pursued at the same time. Vide) generally, Holt on Libels; Starkie on Slander; 1 Harr. Dig. Case, I.; Chit. Cr. L. Index, h.t.; Chit. Pr. Index, h.t.

A Law Dictionary, Adapted to the Constitution and Laws of the United States. By John Bouvier. Published 1856.
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