Explain libel & slander to me. Also Int'l aspects of it.

What exactly are libel & slander? Can you get in trouble by saying the truth about someone? Is it the same in most countries (I know, there are a bunch of countries, but the basics are or are not universal?).

Work wise, can you get in trouble for telling an employer that their new employee did something bad when working with you? What about warning potential investors that someone is potentially going to scam them or lose them lots?

Just asking cuz of a discussion with a friend that the truth doesn’t matter if it hurts someone’s reputation or causes them grief.


In the US, and most common law jurisdictions, you cannot get in trouble for telling the truth about someone.

If you publish something stated as fact about a person, and cannot prove it, you can be sued for libel. There are obvious exceptions for things like satire. If the victim is a Public Figure, then the claim has to be particularly outrageous. You cannot be sued for libel for expressing an opinion.

Slander is similar, but applied to spoken word instead of print.

In most states, employers can fire you for pretty much any reason they want, except for being a member of a protected class (being a certain race, religion, sex, and so on.) If you tell your employer something and he doesn’t like it, he can fire you. A major exception to this is government safety regulations. Federal and mant state laws protect workers who are “whistleblowers” who make public information about a company neglecting or ignoring mandatory safety procedures.

There are Australian jurisdictions where truth is not an absolute defence to defamation.

Libel and slander is a topic on which you can find complete libraries; a general overview is too complicated.

About the more specific questions you asked, here is a European outlook, specifically as seen by the European Court of Human Rights.

The truth is not an absolute defence.

First you should realize that you should be able to back up your claim if challenged in court, and the onus of the proof is on you. This may prove to be quite costly and difficult.

Furthermore, even if something is true, there may be reasons that it is improper to make it public under certain circumstances. A case that was taken to the European Court of Human Rights involved a Dutch amn who had (as I remember) during WW II notified the German authorities of the presence of Jews. He was convicted after the war. Many years later (1980-1990) a newspaper published about this, but it was found that although the allegations were true, publishing it now after so many years did damage his current good reputation. (I’m doing this off the top of my head, so a few details may be off).

And on top of this, even if it is the truth, the way you phrase it makes a big difference. A truth can be phrased in an injurious manner. For a non-legal example see the threads here in the Pit.

If you only tell people in the private sphere things, it will probably never come to court. I can’t remember having seen such a case. Such private conversation is protected by the right to privacy. However, if you make it a practice to warn complete strangers against a certain person, that would probably be seen as leaving the private sphere.

International aspects are very complicated. In general, however, you should be prepared to defend yourself in any country where your allegations makes an impact (i.e. are published, read, acted upon, where the subject of your allegations lived, where you live). Even if a judge would in the end rule that he has no jurisdiction, it might take a while and be costly as well.

Very generally speaking, you should not lightly go around bandying grievous or injurious language. Even if you may in the end prove to be justified, the costs to get there can be enormous.

TTT may be right about the Netherlands, but some of his statements are not true in the US.

First, in the US, the truth is an absolute defense. Further, it is up to the injured party to prove that the statements are false (in the UK, it’s the opposite – if sued, you have to prove the statement is true).

Also, US law differentiates between an individual and a “public figure.” The latter (for example, politicians, movie stars, etc.) not only have to show the allegations are false, but also must show that the alleged libeller knew the allegations were false and printed them anyway.

In case I didn’t make myself clear, I was indeed only speaking about European, and more specifically, Dutch law. Although the ECRM does have a uniforming influence, different countries are still allowed a lot of leeway for their concrete interpretation of what counts as slander and libel.

For the record: the ECRM does recognize that public figures should expect more criticism than private persons.

I haven’t had a drink of alcohol, to my knowledge, for 22 years. Suppose my wife is visiting our daughter in Elk Grove. If someone claimed to have seen me drunk and being a public nuisance last night how would I prove the statement false?

“You cannot be sued for libel for expressing an opinion.”

How about for believing or thinking? e.g.

‘I believe so & so is a drunk’
"I think so & so is a drunk?’

At any rate, can’t people threaten to sue you to get you to put in a retraction?

From Spider-Man

Peter Parker: Spider-Man wasn’t trying to attack the city, he was trying to save it. That’s slander.
J. Jonah Jameson: It is not! I resent that! Slander is spoken. In print, it’s libel.

While it is true that truth is an absolute defense to defamation, there are causes of action in some states where truth is not a defense. For instance, some states consider the publication of embarassing but true information about a person (for instance printing in a newspaper that someone has AIDS) an intentional tort. However, if the target of the publication is a public figure or the information is otherwise newsworthy, there is no cause of action.


Darn. I’m now too many years away from my Communications Law class for this post to be coherent, but I’ll give it a shot.

There’s also something about malicious intent, and I think that comes into play with public figures, although it may apply to all. All I can really remember is that the prof. made us watch “Absence of Malice” (decent Paul Newman movie, IIRC) for a good example of getting out of libel charges.

Newman’s character had supplied some information that ended up in print and the person was trying to sue him for it. The person who was libeled lost the case because he couldn’t prove that Newman had malicious intent. That’s how you can express an opinion, controversial as it might be, if you can prove your intentions are not malicious. IAANA Lawyer, but I’m sure one will be along soon to clarify what I just posted.

Get witnesses to testify that, on the night in question, you were at choir practice. Submit the receipt from the car park across the street from the church where you parked your car. It isn’t hard - “iron-clad” alibis are established all the time.

I think you are looking at this as a “prove the negative” kind of thing - I can’t prove I wasn’t X. That not the case. Instead, you simply have to prove that the positive assertion made about you is incorrect, and that’s pretty easy - all you need is contradictory evidence.


I had dinner alone at a restaurant that has a bar in conjunction, then went home alone and watched television. Nobody called and I didn’t call anybody. Since I didn’t expect to need an alibi I didn’t do any of the things that would help establish one, and this is the usual pattern of my activity.

Then the bartender/waiter testifies as to what you ordered. Further, the accuser would be obliged during discovery to reveal the source of the information that you were drunk and disorderly. Destroy the source’s credibility.


You can certainly “get in trouble” with the law by telling the truth about someone, but it will not be considered libel or slander. As Cliffy notes, invasion of privacy is one tort which can commonly arise from telling an unpleasant truth.

The traditional distinction between libel and slander is that libel is published and slander is spoken. With the rise of the broadcast media, courts have increasingly found that libel consists of statements which are scripted or prerecorded, whereas slander arises when remarks are “off the cuff”. In either case, libel is generally dealt with more severely.

Where a statement is untrue, the issue of defamation is far more complex, as various defenses can be raised in various contexts, and various facts can be found to be mitigating, such as whether there was a good faith effort to determine the truth before speaking, whether the misstatement was intentional, etc.

P. S.

To preserve freedom of the press, there are separate rules which tend to make it harder to find that a news report is libelous, particularly if it concerns a public figure.

Of course none of that proves I didn’t get drunk somewhere else. He claims he saw me. I realize that if I bring a suit for damages the burden is on me. In addition, I have to prove actual damages which in my case is hard because my career can’t be damaged, I’m retired, nor can my reputation be damaged because I don’t have one. And besides the slanderer is “lawsuit proof” since he lives paycheck to paycheck and doesn’t own anything.

Ain’t hypotheticals fun?

I would suggest you ask Carol Burnet about how to sue when someone say you are drunk, and you are not.

Ah, but one cannot protect oneself from libel suits by merely qualifying a statement with “I think”. And you can’t have an opinion about something factual.

The case that applies is Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co.