What is a Defamatory Statement

A defamatory statement is a false statement of fact that exposes a person to hatred, ridicule, or contempt, causes him to be shunned, or injures him in his business or trade. Statements that are merely offensive are not defamatory (e.g., a statement that Bill smells badly would not be sufficient (and would likely be an opinion anyway)). Courts generally examine the full context of a statement's publication when making this determination.

In rare cases, a plaintiff can be “libel-proof”, meaning he or she has a reputation so tarnished that it couldn’t be brought any lower, even by the publication of false statements of fact. In most jurisdictions, as a matter of law, a dead person has no legally-protected reputation and cannot be defamed.

Defamatory statements that disparage a company's goods or services are called trade libel. Trade libel protects property rights, not reputations. While you can't damage a company’s "reputation," you can damage the company by disparaging its goods or services.

Because a statement must be false to be defamatory, a statement of opinion cannot form the basis of a defamation claim because it cannot be proven true or false. For example, the statement that Bill is a short-tempered jerk, is clearly a statement of opinion because it cannot be proven to be true or false. Again, courts will look at the context of the statement as well as its substance to determine whether it is opinion or a factual assertion. Adding the words "in my opinion" generally will not be sufficient to transform a factual statement to a protected opinion. For example, there is no legal difference between the following two statements, both of which could be defamatory if false:

  • "John stole $100 from the corner store last week."
  • "In my opinion, John stole $100 from the corner store last week."

For more information on the difference between statements of fact and opinion, see the section on Opinion and Fair Comment Privileges.

Defamation Per Se

Some statements of fact are so egregious that they will always be considered defamatory. Such statements are typically referred to as defamation "per se." These types of statements are assumed to harm the plaintiff's reputation, without further need to prove that harm. Statements are defamatory per se where they falsely impute to the plaintiff one or more of the following things:

  • a criminal offense;

  • a loathsome disease;

  • matter incompatible with his business, trade, profession, or office; or

  • serious sexual misconduct.

See Restatement (2d) of Torts, §§ 570-574. Keep in mind that each state decides what is required to establish defamation and what defenses are available, so you should review your state's specific law in the State Law: Defamation section of this guide for more information.

It is important to remember that truth is an absolute defense to defamation, including per se defamation. If the statement is true, it cannot be defamatory. For more information see the section on Substantial Truth.

 

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Last updated on August 7th, 2008

   
 
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