Is Truth a Defense to Defamation?
Among the six elements required for someone to successfully sue another for defamation is the requirement that the statement be false. If the statement is true, there is no liability and there can be no recovery.
According to common law the burden of proof relative to the truth or falsity of a statement is on the defendant. Truth is an absolute defense, but there are several considerations in determining the truth or falsity of a statement.
- A statement does not have to be truthful down to every detail. A few inaccuracies still can lead to a statement that is true in substance. It also is important to note that while reasonable doubt applies before a jury, simple implication or a preponderance of the evidence is enough when considering a whether a person has been defamed.
- If a statement alleges specific behavior or a specific crime that was committed by the Plaintiff, the statement is true and there is no liability. However, if the allegation is general, wording and implication become significant in determining truth. A person may not truthfully be accused of repetitive bad behavior if that behavior was engaged in only one time. Rutherford v. Paddock, 180 Mass. 289, 62 N.E. 381 (1902).
- A statement is not considered truthful simply because another person said it. While it may be true that the statement was made by another, if the content of that statement is false, the person repeating it is liable, as well as the original publisher. Dun & Bradstreet, Inc. v. Robinson, 233 Ark. 168, 345 S.W.2d 34 (1961).
- It is not enough for the defamer to believe that the content of a statement is true, although an honest mistake may be taken into consideration when determining fault as it relates to reckless disregard or negligence. Mathis v. Philadelphia Newspapers, Inc, 455 F.Supp. 406 (E.D.Pa. 1978).
It should be noted that the issue of fault, as well as on whom the burden of proof falls, is somewhat uncertain given recent Supreme Court decisions. In most states common law still presumes the falsity of a statement alleged to be defamatory, but in a few states the waters have been muddied a bit where this rule is concerned. Recent Supreme Court decisions have held that the defendant must be found at fault regarding whether the statement published is true or false, and a few courts are now putting the burden of proof as to truth or falsity on the plaintiff rather than the defendant.
A few states also now have statutes allowing truth as a defense only if the end motive justifies its publication. The U.S. Supreme Court, however, continues to indicate that these statutes would likely be unconstitutional, in that they violate the First Amendment. Garrison v. Louisiana,379 U.S. 64, 85 S.Ct. 209, 13 L.Ed.2d 125 (1964); Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448, 96 S.Ct. 958, 47 L.Ed.2d 154 (1976).
Court decisions and varying state laws have made it difficult to determine what constitutes a true statement when considering a defamation claim. The experienced attorneys at Minc Law can help you assess your case and who has the burden of proving that truth. Call today at (216) 373-7706.