"Statute of Limitations" is a term used by courts to describe the maximum amount of time plaintiffs can wait before bringing a lawsuit after the events they are suing over have occurred. This time limit is typically set by state statute and is intended to promote fairness and keep old cases from clogging the courts.
Each state sets it own time limits for bringing a lawsuit and a court will typically apply the appropriate statute of limitations of the state in which the suit is filed. A relatively short limitations period is an acknowledgment of the importance of free speech principles, since a short time period reduces the potential chilling effects of speech-challenging lawsuits.
Because each state has its own statute of limitations for defamation claims, which vary between one and three years, you should refer to the State Law: Defamation section to find out what the specific statute of limitations is in your state.
Determining When the Statute of Limitations Period Begins
Generally speaking, the limitations period begins to run when a defamatory statement is "published" (i.e., communicated to someone other than the plaintiff).
This rule is relatively easy to apply when a defamatory statement is spoken to a third person. But what about situations where publication is to a mass audience, such as on the Internet? In these situations, could the statute of limitations begin anew at the time of each publication, such that the statute of limitations could restart every time someone reads a blog post or finds an archive copy of a newspaper in a library, even if the original material was published years ago?
Single Publication Rule
Most states have adopted the so-called "single publication rule," which states that the statute of limitations period begins to run when a defamatory statement is first published. For example, if a magazine is distributed to thousands of news stands, only "one publication" is deemed to have occurred for purposes of the statute of limitations. As a result, the limitations period begins when the magazine was initially made available, not when an extra copy of it left over on the news stand is sold two weeks later.
However, the single publication rule is not absolute. If the purported defamatory content is re-published to a substantially different audience or is altered in a substantial way, a new statute of limitations period may begin to run. For example, if the material in a magazine is incorporated into a book, a new statute of limitations period will likely begin when the book is published.
Most states have applied the single publication rule to the Internet. Generally, the statute of limitation period begins when a defamatory statement is first made available online. Courts will likely find re-publication has started a new statute of limitations period only when online material is altered in a significant way: be careful to consider this if you are thinking of substantially editing or rewriting old material. See your individual state section for information on whether the state recognizes the single publication rule.