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Words are one of the most powerful weapons we could ever wield. More powerful than any gun or knife, words have a way of impacting and scarring us for years. Words can be used to hurt someone or heal them in times of suffering. They can be used to inform the masses or used to spread false messages.

The terms slander, libel, and defamation are used interchangeably and often incorrectly. They are all tied together in a web made up of lies and false statements. Opinions are outside of that web, but it is important to know why they don’t belong with the others. So sit back and get ready for a definition lesson!

Opinion

Before we get to the other words, it is important to define what an opinion is. An opinion is a statement that can’t be proven as true or false as it is a basis of personal preference, not evidence.

For example, if a food blogger were to write a blog post saying that a restaurant sucks, that is their opinion. The restaurant can see that post and be upset by it, but they can’t take any legal action against that food blogger. Why? Because they stated something that cannot be proven as true or false. While that food blogger might not like their food, another food blogger might think they are the best restaurant in town. As everyone has different taste palettes, preferring different textures, tastes, and mixture of ingredients, personal preference cannot be accepted as true or false. 

Opinions are not statements of fact, they are statements of personal preference. So stating that you do or do not like something based on your personal preferences cannot be proven as true or false by anyone else.

Slander

Slander is an untrue oral statement made by someone to a third party. A third party must be involved for a statement to be considered slanderous. Slander is a tort that is considered to be a civil wrong, so legal action can be taken against slanderous comments. 

So continuing with the analogy of the food blogger and the restaurant, if the food blogger were to meet with the head chief of the restaurant and claim they found a cockroach in their food with one of their friends present, the comment would be slanderous. The food blogger might make this statement because they were unhappy with the quality of the food and service of the restaurant and hoping for a free meal. They might also do this so their words spread and people stop going to the restaurant as a result. In this example, the head chief can take legal action against the food blogger for slandering their restaurant. 

Now if the food blogger were to make the cockroach claim with no one around except the head chief, then it would not be slanderous in nature. In this example, the head chief can’t take legal action against the food blogger. They can try to rectify the situation with a free meal and an apology or ban them from the restaurant. But without someone to hear the statement, then the head chief can’t do anything else.

Libel

Libel is a written statement that is untrue and damaging about the other party. It can also be considered libel if you post modified photos of someone that causes them emotional distress, personal humiliation, or damage to their reputation.  

So back to the food blogger and the restaurant they didn’t like. As we stated above, the food blogger writing a post saying the restaurant sucks doesn’t allow for any legal action against them. But if the food blogger were to write a blog post saying that the restaurant is filthy, that they found a cockroach in their food, that their staff had dirty hands, or anything along those lines, then that is libel. These untrue statements could lead to people deciding not to eat at the restaurant anymore, meaning the restaurant will lose money and eventually have to close down. In this example, a libel lawsuit against the food blogger can be filed. 

If the food blogger were to stick with their “This restaurant sucks opinion”, but post modified photos showing a cockroach in their food or using some lighting filters to make a worker look unwashed, then this is still libel. Though they are not making a libel statement, they are posting untrue photos that are damaging to the business. In this example, a libel suit can be filed against the food blogger.

Libel is the easiest one to prove as there is evidence of the words or photos for others to see. And in the case of the restaurant versus the food blogger, if the head chief can prove that the food blogger’s words and photos caused their restaurant to lose money, then they will win their case. The head chief can provide a monthly income report, a reservation book, or anything else that shows a decline in their restaurant’s income.

Defamation

Defamation is a term that encompasses both libel and slander, which are both forms of defamation. If someone is filing a defamation lawsuit against another party, that means the other party made a slanderous remark or posted a libel statement or photo for the masses to see, causing damage to their reputation. This damage to their reputation could be related to their business, their personal image, or their political image if they have one.

The thing to remember with defamation is that it has to be a false statement in order for the person to be defamed. A defamatory statement is based on false information. A  statement made as an opinion, or that has factual evidence supporting it, is not defamation even if the person’s reputation has been hurt. So if the food blogger were to write that they found a cockroach in their food and this has been a previous issue for the restaurant, then it is not defamation as long as they really did find a cockroach in their food. 

Now some people think they can get around making a defamatory statement by saying “I think” or “In my opinion” in front of the statement, but that’s not true. If the food blogger writes “I think I found a cockroach in my food” or “In my opinion, that was a cockroach and not a crouton in my salad”, there is no real difference between the two. If the food blogger’s words are taken as truth by their readers and they boycott the restaurant as a result, then the food blogger has slandered the restaurant. 

The line between defamation and free speech is a thin one. Because of this thin line, defamation claims can be complex and difficult to prove. In the case of the restaurant versus the food blogger, the restaurant must prove that the food blogger made a slanderous statement or published that statement which is untrue and caused damage to their reputation. However, if the food blogger can prove that their statement was true or opinionated, then their defense is absolute and the restaurant will lose the case. Defamation cases can be hard to win for this reason.  In a defamation suit the plaintiff must prove that  the other person made a defamatory statement that was not an opinion and that as a result their reputation or their company’s reputation was damaged.

Educating you on the differences of these words allows you to choose your words more carefully and avoid these legal issues. This education also allows you to know if you have been a victim of slander, libel, or defamation. If you have been a victim of slander, libel, or defamation, seek legal advice with an attorney or lawyer who has experience with these types of cases. Scott Senft is a lawyer with experience in these matters. So if you’ve been a victim of any of these, call 877-291-4878 and get your free consultation today.

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