Defamation is an unjustified or untrue attack on someone’s reputation. It may be an intentional or unintentional attack that lowers a person’s reputation, cause people to avoid him or her, or expose that person to hatred, contempt, or ridicule. If your reputation has been damaged, you may sue for damages, but you will only get nominal damages unless the harm to your reputation is substantial.
To prove defamation:
- statement must be false – truth is a defence.
- statement must be heard or read by another person or persons.
- statement must bring the person defamed into ridicule, hatred or contempt.
Slander versus Libel – in some provinces, the distinction has been eliminated through legislation.
Slander – is through spoken words, actions, sounds, or even facial expressions. It may be intentional or unintentional (you didn’t know someone was overhearing what you were saying).
Libel. – is a more permanent visual (text) or audible (TV. or radio) form of slander. Newspapers are very conscious of the risk of libel and often print apologies or retractions in order to protect against civil lawsuits.
Defenses for Defamation
- Truth – the best defence is to show that the statements are the truth. This is an absolute defence even if the statements hurt the person’s reputation. For example, in a well-known libel case, Liberace (the very flamboyant pianist) sued a British newspaper and a reporter for insinuating that he was a homosexual. He was successful in his lawsuit, though after his death it was revealed that he was a homosexual. If this had been proven at trial, his lawsuit would not have been successful.
- Absolute Privilege – members of Parliament, members of provincial legislatures and all person participating in court cases, coroners’ inquests and judicial hearings receive absolute discharge. The statements, however, must be made during the proceedings – thus, an MP can say anything they want in the House of Commons but if they repeat the same statement outside to reporters they could get sued for defamation.
- Qualified Privilege – people who are required to express their opinions during the course of their work are protected from defamation actions if their opinions are expressed in good faith and without malice (intent to harm). For example, you ask me for a letter of reference for your university application and I state that I feel you are bright but quite lazy; my comments would be protected under qualified privilege. Local (municipal) politicians only receive qualified privileges, unlike their federal and provincial counterparts.
- Fair Comment – it is obvious that many reviews written by film and sports reporters could potentially be defamatory in nature. The law has carved out a niche to permit fair criticism and not motivated by malice. Thus, it is okay for a movie reviewer to say that the latest blockbuster film was the worst piece of trash she has ever seen as long as it is not done only to harm the film and its participants.