Georgia Defamation Law

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

Elements of Defamation

In Georgia, the elements of a defamation claim are:

  1. a false statement about the plaintiff;
  2. communication of the statement to a third party in the absence of a special privilege to do so;
  3. fault of the defendant amounting at least to negligence; and
  4. harm to the plaintiff, unless the statement amounts to per se defamation. See Smith v. Stewart, 660 S.E.2d 822, 828 (Ga. Ct. App. 2008).

These elements of a defamation claim in Georgia are similar to the elements listed in the general Defamation Law section, with the following exceptions:

Defamation Per Se

Georgia recognizes that certain statements constitute defamation per se. These statements are so egregious that they will always be considered defamatory and are assumed to harm the plaintiff's reputation, without further need to prove that harm. Under Georgia statutes, a statement is defamatory per se if it:

  • charges another person with a crime punishable by law;
  • charges another person “with having some contagious disorder or with being guilty of some debasing act which may exclude him from society;” or
  • refers to the trade, office, or profession of another person, and is calculated to injure him.

See Ga. Code Ann. §51-5-4.

Georgia courts have interpreted defamation per se to include statements “that one is guilty of a crime, dishonesty or immorality,” Eidson v. Berry, 415 S.E.2d 16, 17 (Ga. Ct. App. 1992), or that accuse one “of having sexual relations with any person other than his wife,” Baskin v. Rogers, 493 S.E.2d 728, 730 (Ga. Ct. App. 1997). The courts have narrowed the criteria for defamation of a business person by adopting the “single instance test.” A plaintiff has no grounds for a complaint if the alleged defamatory statement refers to only a single instance of mistake or ignorance on the part of a business or professional person. See Crown Andersen, Inc. v. Georgia Gulf Corp., 554 S.E.2d 518, 521 (Ga. Ct. App. 2001).

Who Can Sue For Defamation

Georgia recognizes no “right of action for defamation of a deceased person.” Saari v. Gillett Communications of Atlanta, Inc., 393 S.E.2d 736, 736 (Ga. Ct. App. 1990). However, if a defamation plaintiff dies after suit is filed, the representative of the deceased plaintiff's estate may continue the lawsuit. Johnson v. Bradstreet Co., 13 S.E. 250, 252 (Ga. 1891).

Limited-Purpose Public Figures

Georgia follows Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), in defining public figures. The Georgia Court of Appeals refined its test for limited-purpose public figures in the well-known case of Richard Jewell, the security guard during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta who was first hailed as a hero for discovering a knapsack bomb in Centennial Olympic Park, but later was investigated by the FBI as a possible suspect in placing the bomb. In the court's view, by granting a series of media interviews in which he attempted to influence public perception of security at the park, Jewell became a voluntary limited-purpose public figure for purposes of his libel suit against an Atlanta newspaper. See Atlanta Journal-Constitution v. Jewell, 555 S.E.2d 175, 185 (Ga. Ct. App. 2001).

The Georgia Court of Appeals adopted a three-part test for determining who is a limited-purpose public figure: “the court must [1] isolate the public controversy, [2] examine the plaintiff's involvement in the controversy, and [3] determine whether the alleged defamation was germane to the plaintiff's participation in the controversy.” Atlanta Journal-Constitution v. Jewell, 555 S.E.2d at 183.

Actual Malice and Negligence

In Georgia,  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

Georgia courts recognize a number of privileges and defenses in the context of defamation actions, including substantial truth, the fair report privilege, and the opinion and fair comment privileges. The CMLP has not identified any cases in Georgia concerning the wire service defense. It is unclear whether Georgia courts recognize the neutral reportage privilege.

Most of the privileges and defenses to defamation in Georgia can be defeated if the plaintiff proves that the defendant acted with actual malice.

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

Fair and accurate reports of legislative and court proceedings are among the privileged communications protected by statute in Georgia. See Ga. Code Ann. §51-5-7(5), (6). This privilege also extends to fair, accurate, and impartial reports about administrative agency proceedings. Morton v. Stewart, 266 S.E.2d 230, 233 (Ga. Ct. App. 1980). Georgia courts have generally, but not universally, held that the fair report privilege is qualified and can be defeated by proof of actual malice. Ga. Code Ann. §51-5-7(8) also provides a qualified privilege for truthful reports of information received from arresting officers or police authorities.

Neutral Reportage Privilege

Georgia courts have mentioned the "neutral reportage privilege" a handful of times, but they sometimes appear to confuse it with the fair report privilege and the statutory privilege for reporting information received from arresting officers or police authorities. At other times, Georgia courts use the term "neutral reportage" to describe whether a report is "fair and honest" for purposes of the fair report privilege. Because of this confusion, it is difficult to say whether Georgia recognizes the privilege as it is usually understood.

Wire Service Defense

The CMLP has not identified any cases in Georgia concerning the wire service defense. If you are aware of any Georgia cases, please notify us.

Statute of Limitations for Defamation

The statute of limitations for defamation is one (1) year. Ga. Code Ann. § 9-3-33.

Georgia has adopted the single publication rule. See Carroll City/County Hosp. Auth. v. Cox Enters., 256 S.E.2d 443, 444 (Ga. 1979). For a definition of the "single publication rule," see the Statute of Limitations for Defamation section.

In McCandliss v. Cox Enterprises, 595 S.E.2d 856 (Ga. Ct. App. 2004), a Georgia appeals court held that the single publication rule applied to the posting of news articles on a newspaper's website. If other Georgia courts follow the McCandliss decision, the statute of limitations in Internet cases would begin to run from the date of first posting, absent a modification that triggers "republication."

 

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Last updated on August 13th, 2008

   
 
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