Washington Defamation Law

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

Elements of Defamation

According to Washington law, defamation claims have four elements:

  1. falsity;
  2. an unprivileged communication;
  3. fault on the part of the defendant; and
  4. damages.

These elements of a defamation claim in Washington are for the most part similar to the elements listed in the general Defamation Law section. However, in Washington, the elements of a defamation claim have two characteristics that differ slightly from the general section's description of defamation law.

Public and Private Figures

Washington courts rely heavily on the "vortex" notion of a limited-purpose public figure. See Camer v. Seattle Post-Intelligencer, 723 P.2d 863 (Wash. 1986). The definition of a limited-purpose public figure is covered in the general Actual Malice and Negligence section of this guide under the limited-purpose public figures discussion (scroll down to the topic heading "limited-purpose public figures"). The guide states a person becomes a limited-purpose public figure only if he voluntarily "draw[s] attention to himself" or uses his position in the controversy "as a fulcrum to create public discussion." Wolston v. Reader's Digest Association, 443 U.S. 157, 168 (1979). He must, therefore, "thrust himself into the vortex of [the] public issue [and] engage the public's attention in an attempt to influence its outcome." See Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 352 (1974).

For example, a businessman who was involved in a commercial real-estate development project was considered a limited-purpose public figure in a defamation lawsuit against a newspaper which had printed articles about the development project that stated he was a tax felon. The court reasoned the businessman was a limited-purpose public figure because he “thrust himself into the vortex of [the] public issue” when he sent letters to residents of the real-estate development area telling the residents about the development project and advising them he would be updating them on its progress. Clardy v. Cowles Pub. Co., 912 P.2d 1078 (Wash. Ct. App. 1986).

Actual Malice and Negligence

Washington courts apply a negligence standard to defamation claims brought by private figures seeking compensatory damages when the allegedly defamatory statement makes substantial danger to reputation apparent.

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. 

Failure to investigate is not sufficient to prove actual malice. You should be aware that when you do investigate and facts come to light that either do not support or rebut your factual assertion, the jury may infer recklessness and thus find actual malice if you go ahead and publish the information and it turns out to be false and defamatory. See Herron v. KING Broad. Co., 776 P.2d 98, 106 (Wash. App. Ct. 1989).

Privileges and Defenses

Washington 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 neutral reportage privilege is unclear and CMLP has not identified any cases in Washington concerning the wire service defense.

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. The fair report privilege is the exception to this rule; it cannot be defeated by a showing of actual malice. Alpine Indus. Computers, Inc. v. Cowles Pub. Co., 57 P.3d 1178, 1188 (Wash. App. Ct. 2002).

Fair Report Privilege

Washington recognizes the fair report privilege.  The privilege extends to accurate reports of court proceedings, as well as documents filed in those proceedings.  See Mark v. Seattle Times, 635 P.2d 1081 (Wash. 1981).  A plaintiff cannot defeat the fair report privilege by a showing othat the defendant acted with actual malice. Alpine Indus. Computers, Inc. v. Cowles Pub. Co., 57 P.3d 1178, 1188 (Wash. App. Ct. 2002).

Neutral Reportage Privilege

It is unclear whether the neutral reportage privilege exists in Washington.

The Washington Supreme Court noted the existence of the neutral reportage doctrine and that there was a "modern" trend towards rejecting it, but declined to rule on the privilege as neither party had raised the issue. Herron v. Tribune Publ'g Co., 736 P.2d 249, 260 (Wash. 1987).

However, at least one lower court recognized the neutral reportage privilege in a case involving a newspaper publishing defamatory allegations concerning a businessman made by anonymous union sources. Senear v. Daily Journal American, 8 Media L. Rep. 2489, 2492-93 (Wash. Super Ct. 1982).

Wire Service Defense

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

Statute of Limitations for Defamation

The statute of limitations for defamation in Washington is two (2) years. See Wash. Rev. Code sec. 4.16.100.

The Washington Supreme Court has adopted the single publication rule. Herron v. KING Broad. Co., 746 P.2d 295 (Wash. 1987). For a definition of the "single publication rule," see the Statute of Limitations for Defamation section.

The CMLP could not locate any cases in Washington that apply the single publication rule in the context of a statement published on the Internet. If you are aware of any Washington cases that acknowledge the single publication rule in the Internet context, please notify us.


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