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What is Libel?

By R. Kayne
Updated May 23, 2024
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Libel is a published or fixed form of defamation of character; a civil wrong that falsely impugns the reputation or character of a person or entity, opening the target up to public scorn or ridicule. It might appear in a magazine, book, newspaper, or in a radio or television broadcast. Signs, billboards or posters can also be mediums for this form of defamation. Online libel, or cyberlibel, takes electronic forms such as email, mailing lists, newsgroups, chat rooms, podcasts, vodcasts and Web pages. A false charge that is uttered but not published is considered slander.

For something to be considered libel, it must involve false statements knowingly presented as fact. In the United States, opinion is protected as a tenant of freedom of speech, and citizens retain the right to comment on public figures and entities, including government and officials. Entertainment, parody, editorials, and criticisms that may arguably misrepresent facts are not libelous so long as they are presented for amusement or stated as mere opinion.

Public figures must also meet a higher standard for proving libel than private citizens. Private citizens need only prove negligence, while public figures must show malice.

According to legal experts, one key reason for this seeming double standard is that, unlike private citizens, public figures have access to the media. This means that celebrities, government officials, and other high-profile figures have a public forum for addressing publicized false statements. It is also understood that a public figure is a source for comment and criticisms, and that those entering into public life must accept this as part and parcel of celebrity.

In recent years, cyberlibel has become an issue. Although many citizens do not yet realize it, comments made to chat boards, newsgroups, and even mailing lists are all forms of publication. Criticisms of companies or their goods can be a basis for charges if the poster misrepresents facts or fails to qualify his or her post as opinion. Businesses recognize the power of the Internet, and word-of-mouth becomes exponential when comments are posted to a worldwide medium.

To help protect themselves from libel charges, individuals should keep a log of all contact they have with a company or person over any potential disagreement. People should try to work things out amicably, but if compelled to spread the word about a poor experience, they should avoid exaggeration. It's best for people to stick to facts and, if making a generalization based on their experiences, be sure to state it is as opinion.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon357484 — On Dec 04, 2013

Can a person who worked for you say she works for you then post nude pictures of herself?

By amypollick — On Sep 03, 2013

@nogard: Sending the email is not libelous. Probably not a smart idea, but not libelous. Publishing anything about the affair on social media, however, could very well open you up to a defamation lawsuit, plus it is probably against the terms of use of the social media website, and could get you kicked off the site.

Publicly shaming your wife and her boyfriend does nothing to benefit you, except to satisfy your need for revenge. It makes you look petty, vengeful and vindictive and makes the reader say, "Well, I don't blame her for cheating on him. I would too. Imagine living with that guy!" Even if that's not the case, that's the image it presents. It could also cost you a great deal of money, especially if it turns out you're terribly mistaken and nothing's going on. Then it *would* be libel, and you'd be on the hook for it. If you decide to divorce, it could also be very detrimental to your case. Judges do *not* like that kind of behavior.

Content yourself with sending the emails. But be prepared for the fallout. And don't say anything threatening, either. That could get you arrested. It would probably be the adult course of action to confront your wife face to face with what you know, rather than sending an email, unless you don't trust yourself to keep your temper in check. In that case, send it, but be careful what you say. As I said, you could get arrested.

By nogard — On Sep 03, 2013

My wife has been having an affair for three months with someone I haven't met personally, but is an investor in our start-up company. I am planning to send them both emails asking for explanations and detailing the timeline of the of the affair in a much graphic facts, and plan to post it in social media. Would I be liable for libel?

By anon338274 — On Jun 12, 2013

I am an admin for a large Facebook community page. We have an issue with a Facebook user who has been writing defamatory comments about our page on her personal Facebook page. We reported her to Facebook a month ago and Facebook did take down her posts. Now she is back at it. She has been blocked and banned from our page, but she is now posting on her page, telling others to come to our page and post these comments as well. She is even mentioning the page owner by name. We have written to her and told her to stop, but she continues. What else can we do?

By anon311604 — On Jan 02, 2013

I am trying to escape a domestic violence situation. My ex and his family have plastered my face and name all over online, listing me as an abductor and my kids as missing, even though there is nothing to legally back up that claim. I am on the run from *him,* not the law.

By anon290526 — On Sep 10, 2012

A manager is having an affair with a married man. The wife has sent our hotel in Virginia some pretty nasty emails and faxes. I thought this was the manger's own business until she was chosen for a national commercial representing the chain. How can I tell the corporation without being fired or creating a hostile work environment?

By anon277598 — On Jun 30, 2012

We have a case currently mediating through human rights after a school expelled all of our children because one of them was being bullied. The school framed our advocacy for our child as 'intrusion'.

A blogger has published statements concerning this situation saying that the school found an 'elegant solution', that they admire the man who expelled the children, and on this blog there is ongoing discussion, using my name as the title of blog posts to the effect that they should tell the human tights all about us to negatively effect the mediation and any case with the tribunal that might follow it. I have never met these people.

The discrimination question is, did the school discriminate on grounds of family, i.e. expelling the children because of who they were related to?

By anon272555 — On Jun 01, 2012

My husband got an email from a hotmail account where my name appears as the sender. In the email the person spoke about me, making slanderous statements about me. Tomorrow I will go to the police to tell them about my situation and I would like to know where this email comes from, and who made it. Please let me know if you can help me.

By amypollick — On Jan 18, 2012

@anon241430: Call the television station and ask to speak to the news director. Explain that you have received harassing phone calls and ask the news director to have the news anchor state on each of the next day's broadcasts to say the house shown on that story was not the one where the drug bust took place. Most reputable, ethical news outlets will be happy to make the correction. It probably doesn't meet the standard for libel, since the camera operator probably didn't film your house *knowing* it was the wrong one. That has to be one of the criteria: that the media outlet *knew* information was wrong, but published/aired it anyway. However, you can certainly make a good case to the news director for being harassed because of their actions, and there are probably grounds for a lawsuit if they refuse to air any kind of correction. Good luck.

By anon241430 — On Jan 18, 2012

The people who live next door to me were arrested for a drug bust, but on the news television channel they showed the entirety of the street and then stopped the picture on my house, while still talking about the said drug bust. Is this reason for action? I have had several phone calls telling me I'm a bad person and such. Meanwhile, it wasn't me who got arrested -- just my house is shown for the longest period of time on the tv.

By anon168184 — On Apr 15, 2011

i was arrested and you can find the report on a newspaper website. i am part of the second chance program. in the eyes of the law, what i was arrested for "didn't happen". i have asked the website to remove this and they have not. is this grounds for legal action?

By anon161962 — On Mar 22, 2011

Me and my section are facing trouble with our professor. she wants to sue us in a libel case because one of my classmates published her picture on her facebook then tagged us all there and we made funny comments about the picture. now my professor saw it and printed all those comments there.

She texted us one by one and said that we are going to be expelled because of our actions. she said she submitted our names to the nbi and PRC so that we can never have our licenses in the near future. we said we were sorry to her but still i think she is still mad because of that.

we want to make arrangements for this issue so that it won't be a big deal anymore but she doesn't reply to us. What shall we do now? we are so scared about it. This is our first time to be in this trouble. we are already graduating and we are industrious students so we don't want to let our future be like that. Please help us. Thank you.

By anon125170 — On Nov 08, 2010

I have been separated for nearly three years now. My ex husband won't leave me alone. He is now trying to prove that I am not a good mother and got a neighbor to write complete lies about me, like that I was hitting my mother. I would never hit my mother. It is so untrue. But this is going to court. can I sue for defamation and lies?

By jnewcome — On Apr 24, 2010

I was fired from my last job, based on a "he said/she said" reason. My boss was sent an e-mail stating that I did things that were not even close to being true. because of the email i am being refused unemployment, and i believe future job opportunities have been denied me because of this accusation. this being the short story! does anyone think i have a case against my former employers?

By anon74137 — On Mar 31, 2010

I sent my ex husband's broker an e-mail advising him that my ex. has been snooping around at paperwork in the office when the broker isn't there. While we were still married he had come home and told me that he had seen the profits of his broker's business. This is what I said to his broker in the e-mail. Can my ex do anything to me for sending that e-mail?

By anon64701 — On Feb 08, 2010

OK I have a question. My sister's friend went onto a common slag website and changed the meaning of a girl's name to a derogatory meaning. My sister then posted part of the definition or meaning of the name onto facebook. She did not mention the girl's name on the post. Can my sister or her friend be charged with libel?

By anon62884 — On Jan 29, 2010

It is unfortunate that the internet provides a forum for people to say what they want, hidden behind their computer at their home or office. What people who "surf" the internet need to realize is, just because something bad or ugly is written on the internet does not mean it is true.

If the person who posted the false information does not give their name, or clearly identify who they are and reveal their location (so they can be sued), then this should be one very good sign that the info is posted is not true.

The second sign to look for is the author's failure to provide independent evidence supporting what they say. I can say "The sky is blue" and since we all know this to be true, there's really no need for me to include independent proof or photos. However, if I accuse a person or business of something (especially something serious, like fraud or scam or illicit sexual affairs), and provide no evidence to support the accusation, it is up to the readers to ignore such information.

First of all, if I'm going to report something I feel is serious enough to take the time to report on the internet, I'm going to produce evidence to convince you that it's true. True, there's not always evidence to support an accusation. That's why it is called an "accusation" and in the internet, accusations without supporting proof must be given very little consideration as to their truthfulness.

This is a lesson so many "surfers" need to learn and become familiar with. The more people post points like this to internet, the more others will begin to realize that the internet is not a very reliable source of unproven allegations.

If a person can be considered "innocent until proven guilty" in a court of law, then in the internet world the person must be considered very innocent until proven guilty and the added phrase should be "Innocent until proven guilty, and in all likelihood he/she is indeed innocent." That's just my own personal opinion, by the way, and as you all know, opinions are like backsides: we all have one, and yours is not better than mine! Peace.

By anon49685 — On Oct 22, 2009

My ex's sister found me on a social website and began to tell all of my network friends all types of lies about me, each one something different. some have now refused to be a friend because of this. they're afraid of the drama that comes with this type of stuff. Can I sue her for libel if I can prove this has hurt my reputation?

By pollick — On Oct 06, 2009

One of the difficulties with libel is determining if you have been truly and legally damaged by the false information or accusation. In many of the situations presented on this thread, some form of libel has definitely occurred. Someone posted or published a derogatory claim that caused another person harm. There is little doubt that these published untruths constitute libel in the broadest sense. But could a restaurant owner prove that he or she lost customers directly because someone said their food was contaminated? Could a business owner prove he or she lost potential clients because of some false claims posted on a website or blog? All of those actions are hurtful and wrong, but in order successfully prove a libel case in court, they must also be damaging. Libel cases can be notoriously difficult to prosecute in a court of law, largely because there is a legal distinction between opinion and statement of fact. Writing "I think Mario's Pizza is the worst pizza in town" in a restaurant review may not make Mario happy, but it would not be considered libelous, either. Opinions are protected free speech. The claim would have to be perceived as a statement of fact in order to qualify as true libel.

By anon47386 — On Oct 04, 2009

If someones posts something about your business in a blog that is completely false, is this considered libel?

By anon40862 — On Aug 11, 2009

A supposed best friend of mine sent 2 anonymous letters - 8 months apart - trying to get me fired from my job. Luckily my reputation is stellar so nothing, but since I've figured out who wrote the letters, what should I do? The stress level I'm dealing with is immeasurable! I don't understand *why* this was done.

By wcj5750 — On Feb 07, 2009

Someone on Craigslist is calling me names and is offering a reward to find me. He knows my first name and physical address but not my last name. Should i give him my info to find out who he is and is this libel?

By Shelby — On Apr 20, 2008

Hello, here is my situation...

I have found out recently through someone I have just met that my husbands ex-wife has been writing (emailing) the following things about me. He has shared this info with me as he feels that she is not being truthful and thought I should know, and he also wants to know if she is lying to him.

Here is a copy and paste of her email to him about me...

She had an affair with a married man (My husband at the time was separated from her, and they had an understanding they were both moving on with their lives) She moved into a married families home.

(She had agreed to move out of the house before my husband (boyfriend at the time) and I moved in - long story short, it ended up taking her 2 years to get out of the basement suite - she had no intention of moving apparently and we had to do it with a court order. The whole time she lived there she never paid rent, mortgage, utilities etc.) She slept on and still does have all the furniture etc from the above mentioned marriage. (only a few items, and that would have been what my husband got in the settlement of the divorce, so I don't see the problem) She moved to a city on the pretence of working and got fired 2 months later (not true) She introduces my kid as her son (never have, always as my husbands son)

She called the school on numerous occasions trying to find out how my kid was doing at school. (myself and his father did, as she was withholding this information illegally from his dad, I think this was a good thing for us to do) She orders stuff on line and then has it sent to peoples homes in their names (not true, I don't even know what she is talking about) She walks past and stalks the other person who was married to her now husband. (She works in a mall that has the grocery store and telus store I go to, is that really a problem, and no I do not stalk her) She treats my kid like crap and lies through her teeth to people we know. (Very much a lie) Every pet she has ever had has gotten really sick and died (again a huge lie) She scared my x by telling him that he will come home and find the dog boiling in the pan, and yes he told me that. (ya, and this one, this is just crazy, and no my husband has never talked to her, let alone talk about something like this)

The list goes on and on and on. I am so sorry to tell you all this but you keep asking me about her and I have been quiet for the last 6 months that we have been chatting so I thought it was about time to tell you.

So there is a small example of what this woman has been writing about me. It enrages me to say the least, and I want to know if there is anything legally I can do about this, or what other steps I should take. My new friend has said they would not mind losing her as a friend if this is true, and I have to confront her with it.

So what is your verdict. Thanks, Shelby

By Mariki — On Nov 27, 2007


I'm hoping I can get some help. I use to show dogs for a living. I handled for these 2 women for about 1 year. One had pugs, the other had Basenjis and Italian Greyhounds. Unfortunately the pug died. The dog of Natural causes, due to genetic defect stated by the vet. Both clients wanted their dogs back. They all went home. I find 2 months later that this women created a web site that is False, very hurtful and deceitful. She makes false accusations of her dogs being unhealthy etc..Well before flying them back you need a Health certificate in order to ship dogs. Went to vet and all dogs passed with clean health bill. She also posts pictures of her dogs with me in the picture "claiming that her dogs are sick and skinny"; while winning awards. In the dog show world if your dog is out of condition etc, you will just not win. I have starting losing client more, and more. My reputation is completely ruined. I can no longer get clientele due to these false accusations posted on her web site. I was wondering if If I have legitimate case for slander and libel.And where I could go to seek further help?

By anon3621 — On Sep 08, 2007

Hello, i have recently been accused of threating someone at works life. This did not happen and the individual is just trying to get me fired. We have a very strict no violence policy at my job.I have been confronted by my operations manager, Safety and training manager, and the head of human resources at the corporate level. He typed a whole page of accusations, including that I not only threatened his life once but twice, and that he now "fears for his life from me". This did not happen and i have witness to the fact. I feel that this has defamed my character, and has libeled me. He can't be allowed to get away with this type of trouble. Please help What are my legal recourses for this type of behavior?

By tsclbrcc — On Aug 13, 2007

I have an ex girlfriend that is claiming I broke into her email and sent nude pictures of her to all her email contacts. She is now saying she is going to sue me for defamation of character. Does she have any legal recourse. I didn't hack into her email. And the supposed pictures were sent from her email, not mine.

By babygirl — On Jul 14, 2007

I got accused of having a relationship with one of the clients where I work. The clients are like 17 and younger and we all know not to have a relationship with them. We can be friends with them and stuff. So Saturday I got pulled into the office and got told that they're suspending me for three days. I was like what's going on what did I do? All that they could tell me was that they saw one of the clients picture on my phone I was like because he had it and that was before I knew we weren't allowed to take pictures and I forgot to delete them. They said well you're being really friendly to him. I was like what you want me to be a jerk to him? I let him borrow my ipod I let everybody borrow my ipod. So they're doing an investigation on it and when it comes up clean I'm suing them for every cent they got. For False Accusation.

By angelbaby9 — On May 01, 2007

I am hoping someone can help me. I have a situation involving the police department and a clerical error that has put a Fraud charge on my criminal record. The police department admitted that the woman that accused me of this made a false police report, but yet the police department will not remove this charge from my record. The police department lied about how they received the information because I did my own research into this matter. I am wondering if I have grounds to sue for defamation of character. I am an accountant and can you see how this directly affects my line of work. The weird thing about all of this is how the police officer became very nervous about the letter that I was not supposed to receive in the mail and stole the letter from my hands and will not give it back. I have followed the chain of command and have spoken with all departments that I was referred to. Nothing. So, do I have grounds or not? Please help! If you need more details, I will be glad to answer them.

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