A few steps, according to FindLaw, on the legal road to being defamed:
- Someone makes a statement.
- The statement is "published."
- The statement causes injury.
- The statement is false.
- And the statement does not fall into a privileged category.
A statement can be made either orally (which is called slander) or written (which is called libel, often used interchangeably with the word defamation). In the old days — before "publishing" became as easy as pushing out a tweet — slander was not considered quite as serious as libel. Saying something potentially defamatory in a debate on the town hall steps just didn't reach as many ears or eyes as the written word.
"These days, there really is not much difference because almost all communication is really mass," says Greg Lisby, a licensed attorney in the state of Georgia and a professor of communication at Georgia State University in Atlanta.
The damage, the injury, the hurt caused by an allegedly defamatory statement can come in a lot of forms, but it's generally recognized as a hit to someone's (or some entity's) reputation. That often can bleed into all sorts of other types of damage, including to an individual's livelihood or a corporation's ability to do business. Enter the lawyers.
(A note on No. 5 above: Some statements are privileged and not liable to defamation charges. In a courtroom, for example, testifying in a trial is privileged speech.)
At the heart of defamation cases — at the heart of the law as a whole, really — is getting at the truth. If that supposedly defamatory published statement that has caused an injury is, in fact, true, all bets are off. True statements can't be considered defamatory.
"Truth is always a defense. Maybe not a perfect defense," Lisby says. "But truth will overwhelmingly get you where you want to be."