Free speech is one of the values that America was founded on. After all, the original colonizers fled Great Britain to come here and practice free speech. It seems a little strange, then, that there exist punishments for certain types of speech and civil litigation lawyers to handle these cases.
It might not seem as strange when we consider what words truly can do: ruin somebody’s reputation, leave permanent psychological scars, even make it difficult for somebody to find a job in the future. There therefore exist laws and civil lawyers to protect Americans everywhere.
But this begs the question: how do you know if what you’re saying can get you in trouble under the laws of free speech? JD Haas, a civil lawyer near you, has the answers below.
Defamation: The Umbrella Category
In America, you’re free to say what you’d like, so long as it doesn’t unjustly harm someone’s reputation—to do so would be called “defamation,” or a statement that damages somebody’s public reputation and which the speaker knew to be false. Defamation comes in many forms, two of the most common being libel and slander. Though hurting somebody’s reputation is grounds for both libel and slander cases, the two have a couple key differences.
Slander is, essentially, speaking false words that harm someone’s public reputation. Nothing needs to be officially written or published; simply an utterance is grounds for slander.
In slander cases, the burden of proof falls to the plaintiff. In plainer terms, the person whose reputation was harmed needs to prove that the statements made against them are not entirely true. If the plaintiff is a public figure (such as a celebrity or a public official), however, they will also need to prove that the statement was made with “actual malice,” or reckless disregard for the truth—though the exact definition of actual malice varies between state jurisdictions.
Libel is similar to slander in that it damages one’s reputation. However, in a libel case, the damaging material must be published, such as in a newspaper. In a libel case, just like in slander, under federal law, the plaintiff must prove the statements made against them were false. As a bit of trivia, publishing defamatory statements on the internet can be considered both libelous or slanderous, depending on the situation; however, under federal law, expressing one’s opinion is never grounds for libel.
Still Confused? JD Haas is Here to Help
Law is complicated! If you or your business find yourself in the midst of an accusation of libel or slander, call the business attorneys at JD Haas today. You can reach our Bloomington office at 952-345-1025.