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Defamation of Character Defined

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Defamation of character is a legal claim you can bring in order to sue someone for making false, damaging statements about you. It is a civil suit, which means that when you sue someone in a court of law for defamation of character, you are suing to collect monetary damages. Criminal defamation of character charges are also possible, but prosecutors do not frequently charge people with criminal defamation of character as courts tend to give great deference to the Constitutionally protected right of free speech and hesitate to put people behind bars on the basis of speech alone.

Defamation of character is a charge based on the fact that your reputation and good name has value. If someone defaces or does something to hurt that reputation, you should be entitled to recover monetary damages as the damage to your reputation can have financial consequences for you. In some cases, defamation of character charges are also accompanied by a separate claim for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress. This is a tort, or civil suit, that allows you to recover monetary damages if another person accidentally or carelessly causes you to suffer mental anguish.

While many people associate defamation of character lawsuits with celebrities, these suits are not limited to famous people. In fact, slightly different defamation of character rules apply when famous people are involved that actually make it more difficult for a famous person to sue for defamation of character. These different rules exist because courts tend to believe that when someone opens himself or herself up to public scrutiny by becoming a celebrity or running for political office, it is within the public’s interest to allow others to speak freely about that famous person.

In order for an unfamous person to prove defamation of character, he needs to prove that someone knowingly or negligently made false statements about him in a public forum, and that those statements hurt his reputation. If the false statements were made in print, it is considered libel. If the false statements were spoken, it is considered slander. Both slander and libel are part of the broader definition of defamation of character.

The key difference when celebrities sue for defamation of character is that negligence as to the truth of the statement is not enough. If a defendant makes a false statement about a non-celebrity and is careless when it comes to verifying the truth of that statement, the defendant can be found guilty. If that same statement were made about a famous person, "actual malice" would be required. Actual malice means that the person making the statement must have either known it was true, or been so reckless as to the truth of the statement that even the speaker doubts that the statement is true. This standard was established in a case called New York Times vs. Sullivan in 1964.

A person can defend against a defamation of character charge by proving that the statements were true, that the statements were privileged (i.e. they were made in court or to someone with whom the speaker had a special relationship, like their spouse), that the issue the person was speaking about was a legitimate matter of public interest, that the statements were phrased as opinion and not fact, or that no actual harm occurred to the victims reputation as a result of the statements. These defenses, especially the one protecting public interest and opinion, demonstrate that the court favors protecting free speech rights. Although defamation of character is important to ensure the protection of your reputation, it is equally important to preserve the right to free speech within the United States.

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