You sleep in one morning and wake up to find 30 messages on your phone from friends and family. Rubbing the sleep for your eyes, you search for a reasonable explanation. It’s not your birthday, and there’s no reports of any major political events on your newsfeed. When you open the first message however you discover that your reputation has been defamed and malicious attacked: “Did you see the awful things they are saying about you on the Internet?” You’ve become a victim of online defamation of character and libel.
In the age of the Internet, where people’s entire lives are broadcasted for all to see, it’s an unfortunate reality that there are malicious parties actively seeking to ruin innocent persons’ reputations while causing substantial harm to them.
Now, instead of figuring out what breakfast food you’re going to eat, or whether you’ll hit traffic on the way to work, you’re confronted with the harsh and all-too-frequent reality of online defamation of character, and whether you should bring a defamation of character lawsuit.
In this comprehensive blog post we are going to address:
- The definition of defamation of character,
- What to do when your name and reputation has been dragged through the mud,
- Several popular defamation of character cases,
- Whether you can sue for defamation of character, &
- Other examples of what constitutes defamation of character.
If you’ve been the victim of online defamation of character and want to explore your legal removal options, reach out to the defamation of character lawyers of Minc Law today! At Minc Law, we boast a nearly 100% online defamation removal rate, and all for a flat, reasonable fee.
Ohio defamation of character attorney Aaron Minc and his team of defamation removal lawyers have ample experience in online defamation of character cases, and have litigated in over 19 states and 3 countries, securing hundreds of online removals and takedowns. At Minc Law, we know who to work with and how to work with them in order to secure swift and permanent online defamation removals.
Ohio Defamation of Character Tip: For Ohio residents wondering whether they can bring a defamation of character lawsuit against out-of-state defendants, the simple answer is yes – in certain situations. Ohio residents may bring a defamation of character lawsuit against out-of-state defendants where: (1) Defamatory material is posted which multiple Ohio residents view; (2) The material defames a plaintiff with Ohio domicile; and (3) The plaintiff’s domicile was known by the defendant.
The Defamation of Character Lawyers of Minc Law want to fight for your reputation.
- What is Defamation of Character? Online Defamation Definition & Elements
- Elements of an Online Defamation Claim
- Defense of Online Defamation
- Damages for Online Defamation
- Two Notable Defamation of Character Cases & Examples
- Can I Sue for Defamation of Character? The Limits of Defamation Law
- Defamation Of Character On Facebook & in the Workplace
- Work With the Defamation of Character Lawyers of Minc Law Today!
What is Defamation of Character? Online Defamation Definition & Elements
Also known as a ‘character defamation,’ defamation of character is the legal term for when a person’s reputation is dragged through the mud via a false assertion of fact, which is ultimately published or communicated to a third-party. More specifically, defamation of character’s definition may be broken down into two fundamental types: libel and slander.
- Libel: the written or published (pictures, video, & media) communication of a false statement to a third-party, which ultimately causes harm or damage to another’s reputation.
- Slander: the spoken and verbal communication of a false statement to a third-party, which ultimately causes harm or damage to another’s reputation.
Defamation of Character Definition & Elements
In order to successfully bring a character defamation lawsuit, plaintiffs will typically have to prove the following four elements:
- The statement(s) in question were false,
- The statements were “of and concerning” the plaintiff (the plaintiff may be reasonably identified),
- There was publication to a third-party, &
- The plaintiff suffered damages as a result of the false statements.
First and foremost, at its simplest, in order for a statement or publication to qualify as defamation, or online defamation, it must be false. Note that truth is considered an absolute defense to defamation of character and online defamation. Facts are facts, and will always be protected by law no matter unflattering something may be or how much grief it causes you. Simply put, just because the truth hurts, it doesn’t mean that persons should be barred from posting and writing such.
For example, if you’re thinking about bringing a defamation of character lawsuit against someone because they posted online that you are an ax murderer, yet twenty years ago, you split someone’s head open with an ax and killed them, there’s nothing you can do.
Secondly, defamatory statements and publications must also clearly identify a target – such element is required in order to avoid defamation lawsuits which are overly broad and vague. Sound familiar? You’ve probably seen a phrase or clause appearing at the end of a film’s credits which reads:
“All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.”
After all, you can’t defame someone if they aren’t real.
Third, defamatory statements must also be “published” – which is defined as the dissemination or communication to at least one other party besides the speaker.
Fourth and finally, the false statement(s) in question must have caused harm or damage to the plaintiff – either in their professional or personal life. However, proving that a plaintiff suffered harm is often one of the biggest hurdles in the world of online defamation.
Defamation Law Fact: To recap, the written defamation of character is known as libel, while verbal and spoken defamation of character is known as slander. Parties who communicate and publish defamatory statements may commonly referred to as (1) defamers, (2) libelers, (3) slanderers, and (4) famacide.
Elements of an Online Defamation Claim
Defamation laws vary from state to state, but generally a person must prove that a statement was defamatory to make a claim.
All of the following must be established by a person who brings a defamation lawsuit against another:
- The statement was published by the defendant, meaning it was distributed to at least one person other than the plaintiff.
- The statement provides enough information that the plaintiff is identifiable.
- The statement harmed the plaintiff’s reputation in some way.
In addition, the plaintiff must be able to prove that the defendant was negligent in some way, either in doing something he or she should not have done or failing to do something he or she should have. If the plaintiff is a private figure, only negligence must be proven. If the plaintiff is a public figure, such as a government official, he or she also must prove actual malice, which is a reckless disregard for the truth of the published statement. Finally, the allegation made about the plaintiff must be false.
Most states also recognize that certain statements are defamatory per se, and therefore, no proof is needed. Some such examples include:
- allegations that harm a person’s trade, profession, or professional standing;
- allegations that a person is infected with a sexually transmitted disease;
- allegations that an unmarried person is unchaste; or
- allegations of criminal activity.
Defense of Online Defamation
There are several defense arguments that typically favor the defendant in a defamation claim.
- The statement is true. Truth is an absolute defense to a defamation claim. Even if a person has suffered some amount of harm due to the publication of such statements, damages cannot be collected if the statements are true.
- The statement is false, but it is expressed as an opinion. If the statement is false but expressed as an opinion, the defendant may have a viable defense against a defamation claim. There are two exceptions to this defense. If a statement is made as an opinion or a joke but is taken seriously by a substantial minority or is deemed likely to be taken seriously by a reasonable person, then the plaintiff’s defamation claim may be successful.
- The statement if false, but its expression has limited reach. If the statement is false but expressed in a way that would typically only reach the plaintiff, the defendant may have a defense against a defamation claim. If, however, the statement is published in a way that would ordinarily reach others, such as publishing the statement in an online newsletter or posting it on a bulletin board on the Internet, then the plaintiff’s defamation claim may be successful.
- The statement is privileged. A statement is considered privileged communication if it is expressed during an interaction that is recognized by law as a private and protected. As an example, a person that makes a defamatory statement in a court of law cannot be charged with defamation. Public officials making statements about other public officials in the process of performing official duties also are protected. In addition, there is some protection for a reporter who relies on a public document or public official to report information that turns out to be incorrect. If a defamatory statement is not tied to any public document or public official though, republishing someone else’s defamatory communication is not a defense, even if properly attributed.
- The statute of limitations has expired. If the statute of limitations has expired on a defamation claim, the plaintiff has no case. The length of time may vary from state to state, but generally the statute of limitations begins with the first date of publication.
Damages for Online Defamation
A plaintiff bringing a defamation claim may be awarded monetary damages pertaining to
- loss of job,
- loss of reputation,
- or mental anguish
In order to do so, it must be proven that these losses resulted from the defamatory statement. Lower monetary damages may be awarded if it can be proven that the plaintiff had a poor reputation before the alleged defamatory statements were made. A court also may order a retraction of the statement. Rules vary from state to state.
Two Notable Defamation of Character Cases & Examples
Now, let’s take a look at two well-known defamation of character cases which will help paint a bigger picture of the complexities of U.S. defamation law. Character defamation is no joke, as you’re about to see from the hefty lawsuits brought and contemplated by defamation victims.
The “Skank Blogger”
If you truly want to understand some of the difficult judgment calls that go into a defamation of character case, there’s no better example than one of the most famous Internet defamation battles the U.S. judicial system has ever seen – Cohen v. Google.
The saga started back in 2008 when Liskula Cohen, a successful New York City model, found herself the object of vicious attacks by an anonymous blogger. The posts featured photos of Cohen along with captions describing her as a “skank,” “skanky,” “ho,” not to mention, a “psychotic, lying, whoring … skank.” Unsurprisingly, Cohen went to court to out the anonymous attacked, who had posted such defamatory and hateful things on Blogger.com, a website owned by Google.
The blogger in return, petitioned the court to preserve her anonymity, arguing that the words “skank” and “ho” were used in a “loose hyperbolic” manner and that such insults have become “a popular form of ‘trash talk’ ubiquitous across the Internet, as well across network television and should be treated no differently than ‘jerk’ or any other form of loose and vague insults that the Constitution protects.” Furthermore, she argued that:
- Blogs “have evolved as the modern day soapbox for one’s personal opinions,”
- The insults about Cohen were obviously not intended as objective statements of fact, &
- A savvy online audience would clearly not view them as such.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court disagreed with the blogger. However, consulting the American Heritage Dictionary, the court found “skank” to be defined as “one who is disgustingly foul or filthy and often considered sexually promiscuous.” Similarly, the court looked at the definition of “ho,” which was defined as slang for “prostitute.”
The court ruled that the defamatory intent of those words was underscored by the context in which they appeared in the blog – set alongside sexually provocative photos of Cohen. In this particular case and setting, calling Cohen a “skank” or “ho” wasn’t analogous to calling her a jerk, and was clearly worse…much worse. And defamatory. Due to the defamatory nature of the statements, the court ordered Google to provide Cohen the name of the so-called “Skank Blogger.” As it turned out, the blogger was a casual acquaintance of Cohen, and Cohen decided to sue her.
Surprisingly, the blogger turned around and threatened to sue Google for $15 million for outing her and revealing her identity. However, nothing ultimately came out of that.
The Cohen defamation of character case reveals an important lesson about which legal tactics work when fighting online defamation. Oftentimes, an online defamation victim’s best recourse is subpoenaing ISPs and suing to obtain the identities of anonymous, malicious perpetrators.
If you’ve been the victim of online defamation and would like to learn what your best options of legal recourse are, we highly recommend you contact an experienced defamation removal attorney.
Consequences Of Internet Defamation: The $11.3 Million Verdict
In some defamation of character and libel cases, Internet defamation has resulted in significant jury verdicts. For example, in 2006, Sue Scheff, a Florida woman who ran a service offering information and resources to parents of young people with behavioral problems, won an $11.3 million award from a Florida jury over online defamation.
Scheff’s unfortunate situation arose after she was attacked on an Internet website dealing with services for troubled teens. She was labeled as a “crook,” “con artist,” and “fraud.” Rightfully so, Scheff went to court to hold her antagonist – a woman named Carey Bock – accountable. Bock’s anger and misguided postings stemmed from a previous interaction where she sought Scheff’s assistance.
Ultimately, the jury set the amount of the large award, and Scheff ended up going on to write a book about the defamation case.
Defamation Removal Tip: Setting up a Google Alerts account is an effective way to monitor you or your business’s reputation. Enter you name or business’s name, along with a string of keywords in conjunction that you’d like to be notified about anytime it appears online. When confronting online defamation, proactivity is your best bet at protecting your reputation.
Can I Sue for Defamation of Character? The Limits of Defamation Law
Simply put, yes. However, there are certain hurdles depending on the nature of the statement and the status of the party being defamed.
The founders and framers of the United States Constitution unfortunately made it quite difficult for parties to bring and pursue defamation cases. The First Amendment states that Congress shall make no law “abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” and subsequently, U.S. Courts have followed a rather hardline approach to this statement, putting up numerous barriers to defamation of character lawsuits – especially for public figures (politicians, celebrities, & other notable figures).
Specifically, public figures and plaintiffs are not only required to prove that the allegedly defamatory statements in question are false and harmful, but that the party who made or published them acted with “actual malice” or “reckless disregard for the truth.” Private persons and plaintiffs have a much less strict standard they need to prove, and are only required to prove the party or organization in question published the statement(s) with ordinary negligence.
The Communications Decency Act
Add in several core regulations governing the Internet, and this adds another layer of difficulty for parties looking to bring online defamation suits. For example, with the emergence of the Internet and its meteoric rise in the late 90s and early 2000s, regulators were tasked with a momentous decision to determine just how much liability search engines, websites, message boards, and blog hosting services should have for the content published and facilitated amongst their channels.
Should regulators have chosen to treat such Internet service providers (ISPs) similar to traditional publishers, such as newspapers or magazines, then ISPs could potentially face the same legal liability for defamatory statements. On the other hand, if the law decided to treat Internet sites more like distributors, which would be comparable to newsstands and bookstores, then they couldn’t ultimately be sued for the libelous and defamatory statements made on their site.
Can you guess which one they chose?
U.S. politicians and legislators opted for openness – with the intent of furthering a more transparent and open society – and as a result, drafted Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (the “CDA”), which treats ISPs and online Internet platforms more like distributors.
The passage of the CDA has kept the Internet wide open for the exchange of information and opinion. However that openness has come at the cost of hurting countless people, ranging from businesses who have been damaged by unjust product reviews to the average Joes and Josephines of the world who have been flamed, defamed, and maliciously attacked by aggrieved bloggers.
So, who can you go after if your character is defamed and attacked online?
Well, bar any special circumstances, defamed parties can bring a defamation of character lawsuit against individual posters.
To learn more about bringing a defamation suit against an online malicious poster or troll, reach out to an experienced internet defamation attorney today! At Minc Law, we’ve secured hundreds of online defamation takedowns, and all for a flat, reasonable fee.
The Limits of the Law
Trying to use the police force and criminal law to fight defamation is ripe with problems. According to a paper by the Fordham Center on Law and Information Policy:
“When victims contact local law enforcement for help, it seems that they are rarely taken seriously…Many law enforcement personnel face limited resources and lack technical expertise. Issues with state jurisdiction also make successful prosecution difficult, as victim and perpetrator are often in different states, if not different countries. While there are state laws for harassment and defamation, few cases have resulted in successful prosecution.”
For example, if an Internet user defames your character from their computer chair in the state of Texas, unless they’ve met the requirements of your state’s specific long-arm statute for jurisdiction, then you likely won’t be able to bring a defamation of character lawsuit against a Texas resident. Also, note that defamation of character in Texas may have differing elements for you to prove in order for you to succeed in your claim.
To recap, below are the most common issues facing defamation plaintiffs looking to bring a defamation of character suit for libelous online comments:
- Lack of technical expertise,
- Trouble identifying and locating the perpetrator,
- Inability to enforce judgments,&
- Storied unsuccessful prosecutions.
The average person is not aware of the various hurdles to jump in the online defamation arena, therefore we highly recommend you retain legal counsel in order to find out valuable information about how identify the individual who has defamed you online. Once you’ve learned more about your rights and formulated a strategic defamation game plan, then you’ll be able to bring that to law enforcement or submit it to Google to remedy the situation and remove content.
Remember, when fighting online defamation and libel, time is of the essence. Most states have their respective statutes of limitations, which limit the window of opportunity you have to bring a defamation of character lawsuit. Note that the first date of publication of the allegedly defamatory material is typically when the clock start ticking for the deadline required to file a lawsuit. If you’re unsure about your state’s individual libel or slander statute of limitations, it’s crucial you look to qualified legal assistance as soon as possible.
Defamation Removal Tip: One vital, but often overlooked step before bringing a defamation case, is preserving evidence, in case the author moves quickly to remove or conceal the defamatory post. It is best to maintain the evidence in electronic form, with a screenshot, PDF printout, or a screen video.
Defamation Of Character On Facebook & in the Workplace
In this section, we’re going to tackle some of the most common places (online and tangible) where defamation of character can occur, and what your general legal recourse may be in such situations.
Defamation of Character on Facebook
In a more recent defamation of character case, a man was awarded $25,000 in damages by a Wisconsin Circuit Court after being attacked on Facebook by someone he’d never even met. The perpetrator, John Beckett, created a bogus Facebook account using the name and photo of his victim, Stephen Laughland. Beckett then proceeded to fill the page with scathing comments about Laughland while falsely attributing malicious and defamatory things to Laughland himself.
For example, one of the entries read, “It is nice being a loser and taking advantage of banks and credit card companies.”
Another post read, “I am not sure why more people have not caught onto the fact that I am a low life manipulative person.”
The Wisconsin Court found that Beckett had in fact defamed laughland in an attempt to win favor with Laughland’s ex-girlfriend due to an ongoing child custody battle between the two. Laughland sued Beckett and Beckett attempted to present multiple arguments in his defense, arguing that such statements were substantially true and fell within the bounds of opinion – which is protected by the First Amendment.
The Circuit Court saw it differently, much differently, and ultimately ruled against Beckett. An appellate court noted that calling Laughland a “low life loser” might have qualified as opinion, but that Beckett crossed the line by making specific false statements that Laughland had:
- Defrauded banks,
- Manipulated banks and credit card companies, &
- Engaged in “underhanded” business practices.
The Milwaukee County Circuit Judge assessed the damage to be $15,000 in general damages and another $10,000 in punitive damages (punishment damages). He opined, “There was one and only one motivation for this,” and noted Beckett’s effort to woo Laughland’s ex-girlfriend. And that motivation was “an attempt to impress her and an attempt to run down in her eyes Mr. Laughland. You put all of that together and you’ve got the ill-will, you’ve got the malice, you’ve got the defamatory statements, et cetera.”
To read up further on reporting libel and slander on Facebook, check out our comprehensive blog post here.
Defamation of Character in the Workplace
Another common form of defamation is in the workplace, which causes harm to a present or former employee’s reputation, character, or career opportunities. Just remember that defamation not only has the ability to impact your personal life but your professional one as well.
Some common consequences of workplace defamation include:
- Being fired,
- Denial of future employment possibilities,
- Denial of a raise or promotion,
- Heightened criticism and scrutiny from your coworkers,
- Anxiety, mental anguish, and other emotionally taxing results, &
- Strained workplace relationships.
Workplace defamation boasts the same elements as ordinary defamation (mentioned above), however, determining what constitutes workplace defamation can often be difficult. It’s important to be able to properly differentiate between water cooler rumors, jokes, and sincere criticism.
Keep in mind that opinions will not be considered defamation, as they are not a false assertion of fact about a person. If a coworker comes to you letting you know how they feel, or conveys such to others, you likely won’t have a claim for defamation – unless they are specifically disseminating untrue statements about you. However, if they have grounds to believe you aren’t doing your job properly, just know such speculation is allowed.
Additionally, truth is considered an absolute defense to a defamation lawsuit, so if what a coworker is spreading is the truth, then there’s not much that can be done.
Rumors can be a grey area for some, as they are not usually considered defamation of character, but ultimately can create an extremely toxic and volatile environment. If rumors do however rise to the level of being derogatory and substantially false, then you may have a claim for defamation of character.
Speaking to your human resources manager is the advised first step when dealing with rumors, however, if they fail to take action and the rumors keep snowballing, we recommend you consult an experienced defamation attorney.
Employment Referrals & References
Most U.S. states have codified protections for employers who reach out to a person’s former employer in order to gather whether they’d be a good fit for the company or not. Such communications between previous and potential employers are privileged.
If a manager in good-faith discloses accurate information about a candidate and former employee, including their reason for termination and past job performance, they will not likely be held liable for disclosing such. However once an employer starts fabricating reasons for an employee’s termination or about their performance, that opens them up to defamation liability.
To read up further on the concept of privilege, check out our comprehensive article here.
Peer Review & Performance Reviews
Just as our society has heightened burdens of proof for public figures bringing defamation claims, the law has established certain protections for employers who openly and genuinely given criticism and critique to an employee during their performance review.
Note that this protection from defamation liability is not all-encompassing, and an employer will lose such privilege if they communicate statements to an employee with ill-will or bad faith, and without factual basis. For example, such allegations could include theft, incompetence, or engaging in criminal activity.
If you’ve been the victim of defamation of character or slander in your workplace, reach out to the internet defamation lawyers of Minc Law today.
Work With the Defamation of Character Lawyers of Minc Law Today!
If you think you’ve been maliciously attacked or defamed online, or subject to another form of Internet abuse, don’t hesitate to call the defamation of character attorneys of Minc Law today. At Minc Law, we’ve litigated in over 19 states and 3 countries, and boast a nearly 100% defamation removal rate – all for a flat, reasonable fee.