False Accusations—Defamation of Character by Libel or Slander

When one person makes false accusations against or statements about another and “publishes” those statements (by transmitting them to a third party by written word or word of mouth), and those statements damage the reputation, character or integrity of that person, the target of the statements may recover damages from the person who uttered the false statements. Such statements are called defamation of character.

There are two types of defamation

  1. Libel: Libel is a defamation that is written, such as in a newspaper, magazine or on the internet.
  2. Slander: Slander is a defamation that is orally published, such as in a speech, over the airwaves, or in casual conversation.

What are the elements of a defamation case?

Aside from the oral or written character of the statements, the elements of a libel or slander case are the same. The plaintiff must show that:

  • The defendant made a false and defamatory statement that he knew or should have known was false (this makes the standard for defamation negligence)—note some false statements do not harm the reputation of the target; and when the defamatory statement is part of a larger whole, if the defamatory part is a insignificant inaccuracy, it will not be considered defamatory;
  • The false statement clearly identified the target—vague statements cannot be construed as being about a particular person. If you’ve ever wondered why films disclaim that any resemblance to actual, living people is coincidental, it is to dispel any notion they are clearly identifying a person for malicious statements. Short of actually naming a person (or something close to is, such as “the man who lives in apartment B at such and such an address), it can be difficult to establish the statement has identified the target;
  • The defendant published the defamatory statement to at least one-third party who is not the target—if the publication is written, the defamation is libel; if the publication is oral, the defamation is slander;
  • The defamation damaged his character in some way.

If someone published horrible things about me that are true, but nobody else knew them, and my reputation was damaged, can I still sue for defamation?

No. In defamation cases, truth of the allegedly defamatory statement is always an absolute defense.

For example:

Person A writes an article in the newspaper claiming that Person B has robbed numerous banks. Person B loses his job. The article is false. Person B may sue Person A for libel.

Person A writes an article in the newspaper claiming that Person B has robbed numerous banks. Person B loses his job. The article is true. Person A has an absolute defense in the event Person B sues for libel.

Also, if your reputation is already damaged by your own previous actions, for example, if you have a public history of crime, and someone accuses you of a crime you did not commit, you cannot argue that you were defamed because your character was already compromised.

I did an interview with a local reporter and I mistakenly admitted to something that was false. The statement has been published and my reputation has been damaged. Can I sue for defamation?

No. Consent is an absolute defense to a defamation allegation.

I am a celebrity, and I want to stop tabloids from printing scurrilous rumors and false accusations about me that harm my reputation with my fans. Can I sue for libel?

Yes, but the standard of proof for you is higher. There is a public figure exception in defamation law that states that in order to win a defamation claim, a public figure must show not only that the published statements were false, but that the publisher acted with “actual malice” in printing the story.

Malice is defined as actual knowledge that the statement is false or reckless disregard as to whether the statement was false.

Public figures include celebrities, politicians, and other people who are publicly prominent, such that discussion of them is of public interest.

I am a private person who is involved in a matter of public interest, and terrible and false things have been said about me. Can I sue for defamation?

Yes, but because you are involved in a public matter, the standard will be actual malice.

If someone expresses an opinion, can he be sued for defamation?

Not generally. So long as the statement is about a matter of public interest and is made in a way such that it cannot be proved true or false, the statement is protected from defamation actions.

My former employer said terrible and false accusations about me to another employer with whom I was interviewing for a job. Can I sue my former employer for defamation?

Most likely not. There are certain situations in which a New York law shields a defamation defendant from a lawsuit. In these cases, the defendant enjoys what is called a “qualified privilege” to make statements about their evaluation of employees (even if they turn out to be false), to law enforcement and to other employers. Unless you can prove your employer was actually malicious in making these false statements, you will not be able to win a defamation claim.

I am the victim of defamation:

  • Document your claim—when, where and how was a false statement published?
  • Act quickly, you have a limited time in which to sue
  • Contact an experienced personal injury lawyer

Changes may occur in this area of law. The information provided is brought to you as a public service with the help and assistance of volunteer legal editors, and is intended to help you better understand the law in general. It is not intended to be legal advice regarding your particular problem or to substitute for the advice of a lawyer.

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