Slander and libel are two types of defamation. A person can be defamed either through oral or written words. When defamation happens through oral words, it is slander. When defamation is through written words, it is libel. Libel is a permanent form of defamation as it includes broadcasting or publication of false and defamatory statements, pictures, or images that damages a person’s reputation.
Libel statements are actionable per se. However, the plaintiff will have to prove beyond doubt that the statement was false and injurious to his/her reputation. A mere expression of opinion is not actionable. To bring an action for libel, the plaintiff should be able to prove that the statement was:
- published to third party,
- referred to the plaintiff,
- defamatory to the plaintiff,
- false, and
- the defendant is at false, and
- if the statement is of public interest then the plaintiff should prove negligence on the publisher’s part.
Both punitive and compensatory damages are granted in a successful libel case. Main defense available in libel case is ‘truth’. If the defendant proves the alleged defamatory statement is true s/he will not be liable for damages. Additionally, if libelous statements were made by legislative or executive officers while in course of office or judicial officers during court proceedings, no action can be taken against the defendant even if the statement was false.
Libel actions are common among celebrities and public personnel. Libel actions by celebrities are generally referred as ‘Media Libel’. When a celebrity brings an action for libel, s/he will have to prove ‘actual malice’. This element was introduced by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case named New York Times v. Sullivan (1965). In this case the Supreme Court held that when celebrities or public personnel filed defamation cases they should make a showing that the statement was made with actual malice. The public figure should prove that the defendant made the statement knowing it to be false and made it recklessly with disregard to its truthfulness. The inability of the public figure to prove actual malice will make him/her loose the case.
Public personnel in the current context are not just media persons, politicians, or high officials; it also includes two other categories of individuals such as: limited public figure, and involuntary public figure. Limited public figure will include common man engaged in an activity of public interest. Example: participants of reality shows like American Idol. Involuntary public figure will include people who did not actually want publicity but circumstance dragged them into publicity. Example: A person accused in high profile crimes who was later found innocent. Both limited public figure and involuntary public figure will have to prove actual malice in defamation cases.
The following is an example of a series of media libel cases involving an involuntary public figure. These cases were filed by a person named Richard Jewel (“Jewel”). The case series is commonly known as Richard Jewell v. NBC, and other Richard Jewell cases. Jewel was private person working at Centennial Olympic Park. While he was working during the Olympic Goodwill Games in Atlanta (1996), a bomb blast occurred which injured many and killed one. Jewel was the prime suspect in the bomb blast case. Several newspapers and television channels including defendant NBC published his name as the main suspect inspite of law prohibiting release of a suspect’s name before being charged. Later in the bomb blast case, Jewel was found not guilty and was acquitted. Richard filed the current series of libel cases against defendants NBC, and other newspapers and television channels. Jewel claimed that the published and broadcasted information was false and defamatory. The cases settled for large amounts.