LL&D Law
Can You Be Sued for Spreading Gossip on the Internet?

by Matt Hopkins
8/31/2010 10:40:00 AM

      Ok, this didn’t come from me. You can’t tell anyone. And, if you do tell someone, make him keep it quiet.

      Yes. You can be liable to another person for making untrue statements about her. The law calls this “defamation.” Defamation is a communication of some untrue statement about another person that, by its nature, could cause injury to that person. Defamation has two forms, libel and slander. Libel is defamation that is written. Slander is spoken. Put simply, a statement is defamatory if it (1) is communicated to an audience; (2) is likely to cause harm; and (3) is untrue.

      Let’s illustrate. Everyone at my house says I snore. I do not. They do me the great disservice of running around telling everyone who will listen that they cannot sleep because of me. They all handle the situation in different ways.

      My son complains only to me. No slander here, because he has not “published” a statement. He makes the statement to me, not an audience.

      My wife and youngest daughter tell everyone. My spouse explains that she is always exhausted from beating me on the chest all night. My five year old just thinks it’s funny, and tells all her friends, who don’t seem to care. Here, both have “published” a statement about me. They’re probably ok, though, because we can’t really imagine what harm might come to me from their gossip. My friends aren’t likely to look down on me or avoid me because I snore, and the kindergarteners don’t even think about it as they’re hearing it. No harm here. No slander here.

      My oldest daughter writes about my snoring on the internet. This, because it is written, is libel. The test is the same. Has she published a statement? Yes, to millions. Unless I sell a cure for snoring on infomercials, however, how can I possibly be harmed by the world knowing my secret? No libel.

      And then there’s this: truth is an absolute defense. If my family can prove that I snore, I cannot win a lawsuit against them. I have no chance. It’s four against one. My only potential witness is the dog, and he’s, well, a dog.

      So, if it’s true, you’re free to say it. Just remember, some things about you are true too.


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