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Defamation, Libel, and Slander: Background

The law of defamation protects a person's reputation and good name against communications that are false and derogatory. Defamation consists of two torts: libel and slander. Libel consists of any defamation that can be seen, most typically in writing. Slander consists of an oral defamatory communications. The elements of libel and slander are nearly identical to one another.

Historically, the law governing slander focused on oral statements that were demeaning to others. By the 1500s, English courts treated slander actions as those for damages. Libel developed differently, however. English printers were required to be licensed by and give a bond to the government because the printed word was believed to be a threat to political stability. Libel included any criticism of the English government, and a person who committed libel committed a crime. This history carried over in part to the United States, where Congress under the presidency of John Adams passed the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to criticize the government. Congress and the courts eventually abandoned this approach to libel, and the law of libel is now focused on recovery of damages in civil cases.

Beginning with the landmark decision in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), the U.S. Supreme Court has recognized that the law of defamation has a constitutional dimension. Under this case and subsequent cases, the Court has balanced individual interests in reputation with the interests of free speech among society. This approach has altered the rules governing libel and slander, especially where a communication is about a public official or figure, or where the communication is about a matter of public concern.

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