North Carolina Defamation Law

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

Elements of Defamation

The elements of a defamation claim in North Carolina are essentially similar to the elements discussed in the general Defamation Law section, with the following exceptions and clarifications:

Defamation Per Se

North Carolina has a broad definition of libel per se. This term refers to statements 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. In North Carolina, a statement that does any of the following things amounts to libel per se:

  • charges that a person has committed an infamous crime;
  • charges a person with having an infectious disease;
  • tends to impeach a person in that person's trade or profession; or
  • otherwise tends to subject one to ridicule, contempt, or disgrace.

This last category of libel per se is quite broad and is not recognized by most other states.

Actual Malice and Negligence

In North Carolina, 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 the standards and terminology mentioned in this subsection.

Privileges and Defenses

North Carolina courts recognize a number of privileges and defenses in the context of defamation actions, including substantial truth, the opinion and fair comment privileges, and the fair report privilege. The status of the wire service defense and the the neutral reportage privilege is unsettled.

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.

Most of the privileges and defenses to defamation can be defeated if the plaintiff proves that the defendant acted with actual malice. This does not apply to immunity under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. It is not clear whether actual malice defeats the fair report privilege in North Carolina.

Fair Report Privilege

In North Carolina, the fair report privilege protects accurate reports of government proceedings and public records.  Among other things, the privilege applies to court proceedings and information contained in court documents. It also extends to reports of arrests and the charges upon which the arrests were based. See LaComb v. Jacksonville Daily News, 543 S.E.2d 219, 221 (N.C. Ct. App. 2001).  To take advantage of the privilege, your report must be a "substantially accurate acount." It is not clear whether a plaintiff can defeat the fair report privilege by proving that the defendant acted with actual malice.

Neutral Reportage Privilege

The CMLP located no North Carolina cases addressing the neutral reportage privilege. If you know of any cases, please contact us.

Wire Service Defense

One North Carolina appeals court has recognized the wire service defense, but did not elaborate on its scope. See McKinney v. Avery Journal, Inc., 393 S.E.2d 295 (N.C. Ct. App. 1990).

Statute of Limitations for Defamation

The statue of limitations for defamation in North Carolina is one (1) year. See N.C. Gen. Stat. § 1-54.

The CMLP has identified no North Carolina cases addressing whether the state follows the single publication rule, either online or off. For a definition of the "single publication rule," see the Statute of Limitations for Defamation section. If you are aware of any North Carolina cases that acknowledge the single publication rule in the Internet context, please notify us.


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