District of Columbia Defamation Law

Note: This page covers information specific to the District of Columbia. For general information concerning defamation, see the Defamation Law section of this guide.

Elements of Defamation

According to District of Columbia law, defamation claims have four elements:

  1. the defendant made a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff;
  2. the defendant published the statement without privilege to a third party;
  3. the defendant's fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence; and
  4. either the statement was actionable as a matter of law irrespective of special harm or its publication caused the plaintiff special harm.

See Jankovic v. International Crisis Group, 429 F.Supp.2d 165, 173-4 (D.D.C. 2006). The elements of a defamation claim in the District of Columbia are similar to the elements listed in the general Defamation Law section, with the following exceptions:

Defamation Per Se

In the District of Columbia, any written or printed statement that falsely accuses someone of committing a crime constitutes defamation per se. See Raboya v. Shrybman & Associates, 777 F.Supp. 58 (D.D.C. 1991). If a statement is defamation per se, the court will assume harm to the plaintiff's reputation, without further need to prove that harm.

The District no longer allows presumed damages for defamation per se directed at public figures, following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974). See El-Hadad v. United Arab Emirates, 496 F.3d 658 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (affirming unpublished lower court decision implying that presumed damages are no longer available for public figures). The court in El-Hadad noted that D.C. law provides for presumed damages for defamation per se directed at private figures.

Public Figures

Federal courts in D.C., applying D.C. law, have ruled that corporate plaintiffs are considered public figures as a matter of law in lawsuits against mass media defendants that involve "matters of legitimate public interest." See Oao Alfa Bank v. Center for Public Integrity, 387 F.Supp.2d 20, 48 (D.D.C. 2005) (citing other cases). The opinions of federal district courts are not definitive on the meaning of D.C. law, but other cases might choose to follow this rule. Should they decide to do so, then any corporation -- no matter how large -- would have to prove actual malice in order to prevail in such cases. There is no reason to believe this rule would not apply to lawsuits involving citizen media defendants because the underlying rationale focuses on the characteristics of corporations, not those of the defendant in the lawsuit. 

Actual Malice and Negligence

In the District, a private figure plaintiff bringing a defamation lawsuit must prove that the defendant was at least negligent with respect to the truth or falsity of the allegedly defamatory statements. Public officials, all-purpose public figures, and limited-purpose public figures must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice, i.e., knowing that the statements were false or recklessly disregarding their falsity. See the general page on actual malice and negligence for details on these standards.

Privileges and Defenses

District of Columbia courts recognize a number of privileges and defenses in the context of defamation actions, including the wire service defense, the fair report privilege, the opinion and fair comment privileges, and substantial truth.

It is not clear whether the D.C. courts recognize the neutral reportage privilege.

There also is an important provision under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that may protect you if a third party – not you or your employee or someone acting under your direction – posts something on your blog or website that is defamatory. We cover this protection in more detail in the section on Publishing the Statements and Content of Others.

Fair Report Privilege

D.C. courts recognize the the fair report privilege.  The privilege is applied broadly to statements made during proceedings before any court, agency, executive body, legislative body, and to reports of any official proceeding or action taken by a government officer or agency.

Wire Service Defense

D.C. recognizes the wire service defense, which precludes defamation liability for speakers who republish content from wire services. D.C. also recognizes the reverse of the standard wire service defense: wire services may rely on content from reputable newspapers without being held negligent. See Winn v. UPI, 938 F.Supp. 39 (D.D.C. 1996).

Neutral Reportage Privilege

District of Columbia courts have not ruled definitively on the availability of the neutral reportage privilege.

In White v. Fraternal Order of Police, 909 F.2d 512 (D.C. Cir. 1990), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit noted that it had not yet recognized the neutral reportage privilege, although the court seemed to express a favorable view of it. At least one lower D.C. court has applied the privilege. See In re United Press Intern, 106 B.R. 323 (D.D.C. 1989) (news reports were immune from defamation liability under neutral reportage). In an earlier case, a federal district court held that the neutral report privilege would not apply to a case involving statements about a private figure. See Dressbach v. Doubleday & Co., 8 Media L. Rep. 1793 (D.D.C. 1982).

Statute of Limitations for Defamation

The District's statute of limitations for defamation is one (1) year. See D.C. Code Sec 12-301(4).

The District has adopted the single publication rule. See Jin v. Ministry of State Secretary, 254 F.Supp. 2d 61, 68 (D.D.C. 2003). For a definition of the "single publication rule," see the Statute of Limitations for Defamation section of this guide.

In Jankovic v. International Crisis Group, 494 F.3d 1080 (D.C. Cir. 2007), the D.C. Circuit held that the single publication rule applies to statements posted on the Internet, and that the statute of limitations runs from the date of first publication absent "republication" of the allegedly defamatory statement by updating it or taking steps to expand the audience for it. While the Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia has not ruled on the issue as a matter of state law, it is likely that other D.C. courts would apply this holding. Therefore, the statute of limitations in Internet cases should run from the date of first posting, absent some modification that triggers "republication."

 

Last updated on August 12th, 2008

   
 
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