Group defamation is a complex legal topic that touches upon the delicate balance between freedom of speech and protecting individuals and communities from harmful falsehoods.
Group defamation, group libel, or group slander, refers to the act of making false, damaging statements about a group of people or a class of individuals rather than targeting a specific person. The ability of a group or class of people to sue for defamation varies depending on the jurisdiction.
In some states, group defamation is recognized as a distinct category of defamation, allowing groups to sue for false statements directed at the group as a whole and causing harm to its members. In other states, however, only individuals can file suit if they can show that a false statement specifically targeted them.
At Minc Law, we have extensive experience navigating libel and defamation laws across the United States. Our team of attorneys has authored over 22 state-specific guides on defamation law. We have also removed more than 50,000 pieces of defamatory content from the internet and worked with thousands of individuals and businesses to protect their online reputations.
In this article, we will delve into the concept of group defamation and its legal implications for both individuals and groups.
What is Considered Defamation?
Defamation, also known as defamation of character, is the act of making false, damaging statements about someone that harms their reputation. Defamation can take two primary forms: libel and slander.
Libel refers to defamatory statements made in written or published form, such as in newspapers, magazines, or online platforms. Slander, on the other hand, involves spoken defamatory statements, which can occur during conversations, interviews, or public speeches.
Online defamation refers to defamatory statements made electronically, such as emails, blogs, forums, and social media platforms like Facebook or Twitter. Given the ease of sharing and disseminating information online, the potential for damage to a person or group’s reputation is significantly increased compared to traditional print.
What Elements Must You Prove in a Defamation Claim?
While the legal elements for defamation vary slightly by state, a plaintiff must typically prove the following elements to prevail in a defamation lawsuit:
- False statement: the defendant made a false statement about the plaintiff.
- Publication: the statement must have been published or communicated to a third party in written or spoken form.
- Intent: the defendant acted with negligence or actual malice in publishing the false information.
- Not privileged: the defamatory statement was not protected by the defense of privilege.
- Damages: the plaintiff must demonstrate that they suffered harm or damages as a result of the statement. This can include financial losses, harm to reputation, or emotional distress.
What is Considered Group Defamation?
Imagine someone making a false statement about a group to which you belong, like saying everyone in your district’s PTA has conspired to cover up a crime. You might wonder if this could lead to an actionable legal claim.
Group defamation is a complicated area of law designed to tackle situations like this, where false and damaging statements are aimed at a larger collective instead of an individual.
Group Defamation Defined
Group defamation is when speech or other forms of communication defame any definable group of people. In essence, it targets and harms the reputation of a collective rather than an individual.
In some jurisdictions, like Louisiana, courts recognize a cause of action for group defamation. An individual may bring an action for defamation even if they are not explicitly named, as long as the defamatory words refer to a small, identifiable group to which they belong.
While there is no definite limit on the size of the group, most authorities agree that the group must consist of 25 or fewer members for the plaintiff to sue for group defamation.
How Do You Prove Group Libel?
If a statement is about a large group and it is not clear that it is referring to a specific person, it usually cannot be used in court. However, if something in the statement or situation clearly points to the person, then it might be possible.
To prove group libel, the person needs to show either:
- The group is small enough that the statement could be talking about them, or
- The way the statement was made makes it clear that it is about the individual.
For example, in cases where the group is small enough to indicate the plaintiff is the person in question, a statement imputing that all members of a city council are corrupt “is sufficiently definite to constitute a defamatory publication of each member thereof.” The Restatement of Torts § 564, Comment c (1938).
If, however, the group defamed is a large group, “some particular circumstances must point to the plaintiff as the person defamed.” For example, a statement that all doctors are liars would not be considered defamatory of any particular doctor unless surrounding circumstances indicate that he or she was the person intended. But what might these surrounding circumstances look like?
In Ryckman v Delavan (25 Wend 186, 199-202, supra), the court emphasized that if the statement(s) by any reasonable application, ‘…import a charge against several individuals, under some general description or general name, the plaintiff has the right to go on to trial.’
This legal principle is outlined in the Restatement (Second) of Torts § 564A (1977) and supported by the Weatherhead v. Globe Internatl., Inc., 832 F.2d 1226, 1228 (10th Cir.1987) case.
What is the Meaning of the Communication?
It is important to understand that the way that a statement(s) is published or understood by the recipient will determine a claim. Courts will assess a statement’s meaning by using the “reasonable reader standard.” Even if the recipient’s understanding is incorrect, if their interpretation is reasonable, it is considered the meaning of the message.
Generally, words are understood based on the ordinary meaning a recipient would give them. Otherwise, the plaintiff, in order to avoid liability, could claim that they “meant” something innocent.
Similarly, the recipient’s understanding determines who the message is about. For a defamation claim, the message must refer to the plaintiff, but this reference is decided by the recipient’s understanding, not the defamer’s intention.
It is important to consider the full context of a message when identifying its meaning. Two identical statements can have different meanings depending on the context. For example, a newspaper headline may have a different context than the article itself, as many people only read headlines.
The circumstances under which a person receives the message can also affect its meaning and the recipient’s understanding. If a statement that appears defamatory is made as a joke in a situation where no reasonable person would take it seriously, it would not be considered defamatory.
Filing Suit For Group Libel
Navigating the waters of a group libel claim can be challenging. This section will provide guidance on how to file a lawsuit for group libel, shedding light on some of the most important aspects to consider.
When Can a Group Sue For Defamation?
As a general rule, a group or class of people cannot sue for defamation. However, if a defamatory statement targets a small enough group or is presented in a way that can be understood to refer to specific individuals within that group, those individuals might have a valid claim.
The recipient’s understanding of the statement determines whether the defamatory statement identifies a particular person or persons. Although common law does not define a specific group size, plaintiffs have typically been successful in recovering damages when the group consists of 25 or fewer people. The way the statement is presented plays a significant role in the success of such a claim.
For example, a defamatory statement claiming that “most members” of a 25-person group are guilty of bad behavior may defame the group’s members, but the same statement alleging that “one member” of the group is guilty of the behavior would likely not be considered defamatory.
Can a Plaintiff Recover Damages in a Group Defamation Claim?
Whether a plaintiff can recover damages in a group defamation claim depends on the size of the group.
For small groups, a person who publishes defamatory content about a group may be held liable to an individual member if the group is small enough for the matter to be reasonably understood to refer to the member or if the circumstances of the publication reasonably suggest a specific reference to the member. Restatement 2d of Torts, § 564A.
For large groups, the general rule is that no legal action can be taken for defamation. The group itself cannot sue, and no individual member can recover for such broad and general statements. This is because the statement(s) in question cannot be reasonably understood to have a personal application to any individual unless specific circumstances make it so, according to Restatement 2d of Torts, § 564A, comment a.
What Damages Can a Plaintiff Recover in a Group Defamation Claim?
In a group defamation claim, a plaintiff may seek damages (often monetary) for the harm suffered as a result of the allegedly false statement(s). The primary type of damages a victim may be able to recover are compensatory damages. Compensatory damages include actual damages that result from the proven harm caused by the publication.
To claim actual damages, plaintiffs must provide competent evidence regarding the injury, as emphasized in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. at 350. When claiming damage to reputation, evidence about the circulation and contents of the defamatory publication can support the inference that the publication was read by its intended recipients and led to damage to the plaintiff’s reputation.
Furthermore, the plaintiff in a defamation action may also present testimony about their loss of reputation, as mentioned in Wilson v. Benjamin, 332 Pa. Super. 211, 481 A.2d 328, 333 (Pa. Super. 1984), and referenced in Joseph v. Scranton Times L.P., 2008 PA Super 217, 959 A.2d 322.
Can Someone Be Sued For Group Libel if They Do Not Mention Anyone By Name?
Generally, someone cannot be sued for group libel in cases where they do not mention anyone by name unless (a) the group is small enough to reasonably infer the statement is about an individual, or (b) the way the statement was published makes it clear that the statement is about an individual.
A New York court has stated that under the group libel doctrine, a plaintiff’s claim may not be sufficient if the allegedly defamatory statement refers to the plaintiff only as a member of a group.
According to the court, a defamatory statement aimed at a group usually does not give rise to a cause of action for individual group members. Thus, if a plaintiff is defamed as part of a larger group, the “of and concerning” requirement may not be appropriately pleaded.
To overcome the group libel doctrine, the plaintiff must show that the circumstances surrounding the publication reasonably lead to the conclusion that there is a specific reference to the member, as stated in Restatement (Second) of Torts, § 564A(b).
Can a Company or Organization Sue For Defamation?
The general rule is that a defamation claim by a company, organization, non-profit, or partnership is the same as a claim by an individual. If the statement is false, published to a third party, made with the requisite intent, and caused damages, then a company or organization, like an individual, may have a valid claim for defamation.
A corporation can be defamed if information is published about the corporation that negatively affects its standing in its industry. Statements that influence the public’s perception of a company’s financial stability or management integrity are generally considered defamatory. A corporation can sue for defamation if such statements are likely to deter others from doing business with it.
Similarly, partnerships can be defamed in the same way as corporations – through published material that negatively impacts the partnership’s ability to conduct business. A partnership’s business reputation can be influenced by the public’s view of its financial stability, management integrity, and capacity to provide goods and services.
A non-profit corporation may also sue for defamation if it relies on financial support from the public, and the published material causes damage to the corporation, such as harm to the non-profit’s ability to raise funds from the general public.
What Are the Common Defenses to a Claim of Group Defamation?
In group defamation lawsuits, the accused may use several defamation defenses to protect themselves from liability, including:
- Statute of limitations,
- Statutory defenses, or
- Other lesser-known defenses.
Truth as a Defense
If the defendant can demonstrate that their statement is true or substantially true, then truth may serve as a complete defense against the defamation claim.
The Opinion Defense
A defendant can use the defense of opinion by showing that the allegedly defamatory statement is a personal viewpoint rather than a factual assertion.
If the statement is clearly identified as an opinion and not a statement of fact, it is protected under the First Amendment and cannot be considered defamatory.
Privilege: Protected Statements
The defense of privilege applies when a statement is made in a context where the speaker has legal protection. Privilege can be absolute, such as statements made by lawmakers during legislative sessions, or qualified, like fair reporting of public events.
If the statement falls under a protected category, the defendant may not be held liable for defamation, even if the statement is false or damaging to the group’s reputation.
Consent as a Defense to Defamation
If members of a group or its representatives permit the defendant to make the allegedly defamatory statement, the defendant can claim the defense of consent.
Claim Falling Outside the Statute of Limitations
A defendant can also argue that the time period allowed by law for filing the defamation lawsuit (known as the statute of limitations) has expired. Each state has its own specific statute of limitations, usually ranging from one to three years.
A defendant can also use statutory defenses like Anti-SLAPP laws to protect their free speech rights. Anti-SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) laws are designed to prevent plaintiffs from filing lawsuits to silence or intimidate critics.
This defense can lead to an early dismissal of the case and may even require the plaintiff to pay the defendant’s legal fees if the court determines the lawsuit is without merit.
Other Lesser-known Defenses
Defendants may also use lesser-known and infrequently used defenses like the libel-proof plaintiff doctrine. The libel-proof plaintiff doctrine is based on the idea that a plaintiff’s reputation is already so tarnished that no further harm can be caused by the alleged defamatory statement.
In other words, the plaintiff’s reputation is considered “libel-proof” because it cannot be further damaged.
For more information on defenses, review our comprehensive guide, “The Most Common Defenses to Defamation.”
We Can Help You Determine if You Have a Claim For Group Defamation
Bringing a defamation claim related to a group or individual members in a group may be confusing. At Minc Law, we have extensive experience working with individuals and businesses to determine if they have valid claims for defamation.
We know the ins and outs of U.S. and state defamation law and not only can help to file a defamation suit on your behalf but remove defamatory online content, identify anonymous defamers, and put an end to malicious online attacks and comments.
For more personalized advice and information on your group defamation issue, reach out to schedule your initial consultation by calling us at (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat representative, or filling out our online contact form.
“As is often the case, only the courts can remedy obscene behavior from sociopaths. Rather than spend money on public image consultants, I would highly recommend Daniel and his team for a more effective solution through the judicial system.”
Aug 9, 2021
If you would like a custom online reputation management quote, please reach out to us by calling (216) 373-7706, speaking with a Chat representative, or filling out our online contact form.