Slander is a legal term that refers to a false, oral statement about an individual that harms his reputation or standing within the community. Slander is not a crime, but a civil wrong that is subject to being held responsible in a civil lawsuit. Statements made about a person must be factual, or they must express the legitimate opinion of the speaker. Statements that are made in anger or malice, which are untrue, are commonly viewed as slander. To explore this concept, consider the following slander definition.
Definition of Slander
- Noun. A false and malicious statement spoken about another person
- Noun. Defamation by verbal statement, as opposed to defamation in writing.
- Verb. To utter or speak slander against another person
Origin: 1250-1300 Middle English (sc)laundre < Late Latin scandalum (cause of offense)
What is Slander
Slander is just one form of defaming someone’s character. Defamation of character is the intentional making of statements, or publishing information or pictures, for the purpose of harming another person’s reputation. Slander is a defamatory statement that is spoken, rather than published in writing or art. In order to qualify as slander in a legal action, the statement must be false and maliciously made. In most cases, the statement must have been presented as fact, rather than the speaker’s opinion.
Laws governing slander and other types of defamation vary slightly by state, though a person who is the victim of slanderous statements has the right to seek damages in a civil lawsuit. If successful in proving someone made defamatory statements, and that they caused damage to the plaintiff’s reputation, the plaintiff may be awarded monetary damages.
Examples of Slander
In order to qualify as slander, the statement must be untrue, but told to others as though it were true. Additionally, people are allowed to have and express their opinions. These are statements that the person at least believes to be true. Examples of slander include:
- Claiming a person is gay, lesbian, or bisexual, when it is untrue, in an attempt to harm his or her reputation
- Telling someone that a certain person cheated on his taxes, or committed tax fraud
- Saying that a certain person had an affair with a supervisor or manager in order to receive a promotion (this may be considered slander against two people)
- Telling co-workers a made-up, or unverified story about a certain person stealing from petty cashClaiming that a certain person has a sexually transmitted disease
Statements that are not Slander
Making statements of fact, or which the speaker truly believes to be truthful, is not considered to be slander. Additionally, statements that express a person’s opinion are also not considered to be slander, though that is a fine line to walk. Making a damaging statement while saying “that’s just my opinion,” does not always convince a judge that the speaker’s intent wasn’t malicious. The following are examples of statements that are not slander:
- Stating that a certain coworker is incompetent at his job, which makes it difficult for the speaker to do his own job well
- Telling a group of friends that the food at a certain local restaurant is the worst the speaker has ever had
- Broadcasting on a radio talk show that the customer service at a particular furniture store is terrible (based on the speaker’s personal experience)
- Telling everyone within hearing range at a basketball game that a certain person is a terrible lover (again, based on the speaker’s personal experience)
Slander vs. Libel
Slander and libel are types of defamation of character which differ only in the way the false and malicious statements are made. Both refer to statements made to hurt a person’s reputation, or his standing in the community. Both are false declarations, made out of malice, or for personal gain. Slander refers to defamatory statements made verbally, whether directly to other people, face-to-face, or by phone, voicemail, or broadcast. Libel refers to defamatory statements made in writing, expressed in print, or through symbols or art.
The elements of defamation, untrue statements made in malice, or for personal gain, are the same for both slander and libel. In both, the individual must have suffered some harm due to the defamatory statements in order to have a valid legal claim.
Sidney is angry with her ex-husband, Nathan, when she sends him an email venting all of her anger. She makes statements in the email about all of his misdeeds, and calling him a lying, cheating, disease-ridden psychopath who shouldn’t be allowed to even be near children. Not being satisfied with the email venting, Sidney leaves the same message on Nathan’s cell phone voicemail.
It so happens that Nathan is a pediatrician who works at a local children’s hospital. As this email added fuel to the fire of Nathan’s anger as well, he files a civil lawsuit for defamation of character against Sidney. At trial, Nathan accuses Sidney of defamation by slander as well as libel, as she said those terrible things both verbally (into his voicemail), and in writing (to his email). Nathan testifies that these statements, especially the statement that he should not be allowed near children, have destroyed his reputation, and may cost him his job as a pediatrician.
By questioning both parties carefully, the judge is able to determine that both the email and voicemail accounts are Nathan’s personal accounts, and are not likely to be heard or viewed by the public, his employer, or his coworkers. Nathan is unable to produce a single witness to testify that Sidney published any of these defamatory statements directly to other people, or left them on unsecure voicemail or email systems.
While there is no question that both of these parties are angry with one another, or that Sidney said hurtful things, Nathan has suffered no damages that might be recompensed by the court, which is a requirement to win a defamation lawsuit.
Because slander involves spoken insults, which leave a distinct lack of written proof, proving slander can be a challenge. Not only does the plaintiff need to prove that the false and malicious statements were made, but those statements must meet certain criteria. If any of these criteria are not met, the court may dismiss the case, and the victim will not be able to recover damages. The slanderous statements must:
- be communicated intentionally, or in a negligent manner, to someone else
- harm the other person’s reputation
- directly point to the person being defamed, though the reference may be implied
Slander Against Public Officials
Public officials often have a difficult time proving they have been slandered. This is because society has assumed the attitude that these people have put themselves and their lives in the spotlight, and the public has a right to criticize them. This idea comes from the notion that people have a right to have an opinion about, and even to criticize those who govern or rule them.
The modern legal system offers public figures and government officials the least amount of protection against slander and other types of defamation. Should a public figure seek legal a legal remedy for defamation, he would need to prove, not only the standard elements of defamation, but that the statement was made in actual malice, or with an agenda. This might include a rival public official making defamatory statements in an attempt to remove his opponent from the political landscape.
Defenses to Slander
A person who has been accused of slander or libel has a few options for defending himself in court. Defenses to slander depend on the circumstances, and are not always successful, but being able to prove, for instance, that the statement was untrue, is a good start. In a legal action for defamation, the following defenses to slander and libel may get the defendant off the hook:
As the most commonly used and successful defense to defamation, truth requires showing that the derogatory statement made was false. If the statement made by the other person was true, even if his broadcasting it hurt the plaintiff’s reputation, he has no basis for a lawsuit.
Showing the court that a defamatory statement made was simply an expression of the defendant’s personal opinion provides a defense to a defamation lawsuit. The right to freedom of expression allows all people to express their opinions about things, even if those opinions are unflattering, or downright harm another person’s reputation. The necessary element here is to show that the statement was not made with malice, or with the intent to harm the other person. Also, the statement must be true, or the speaker must believe it to be true.
Example of Slander vs. Opinion
Jaime hates the food at Carlo’s restaurant, and she expresses her opinion on Yelp and Facebook, saying that the tacos she had were tooth-breaking hard, and the enchiladas completely flavorless. She added that she and her party only saw their waitress twice, once when she took their orders, and then again as she dropped off the over-priced check. Because Jaime fancies herself a budding “critic around town,” she has many followers who see, and begin commenting on, her posts.
Restaurant owner Carlo becomes aware that a young woman is telling people bad things about his establishment, both by talking it up, and online. When Carlo notices a definite drop-off in business, he files a civil lawsuit for defamation of his business. At trial, Carlo brings a server, who heard Jaime talking to people about the restaurant, saying these things, and he presented the Yelp and Facebook posts.
In the end, the judge ruled in favor of Jaime, as the comments she made could only be seen as her opinion. She did not make false statements, presenting them as truth, and her published opinions are well within her First Amendment rights.
On the other hand, had Jaime made statements that Carlo’s restaurant apparently uses dog meat in their tacos and enchiladas, and the waitress apparently kept her job by giving sexual favors to the boss, the judge’s decision would likely have gone the other way. In this example of slander, the statements are not based in fact, but are prompted by Jaime’s desire to make sensational accusations, whether in malice, or in an effort to attract more followers.
If the defendant can prove that the plaintiff consented to the publication of the defamatory statement to others, he has no basis for a defamation lawsuit.
Privilege gives a person accused of defamation, whether by slander or libel, immunity from civil liability. Privilege in this context is not a blanket term, as there are different types of privilege, and different levels of immunity.
Absolute privilege protects a person who makes defamatory remarks based on his position, or on his relationship with the defamed party. Absolute privilege may protect an individual accused of defamation under the following conditions:
- Legislative Privilege – the law gives federal and state legislative officials immunity for making defamatory statements during the commission of their duties on the floor of the legislative body (house of representatives, or senate), or in a committee session.
- Judicial Privilege – any person participating in a legal proceeding, including judges, jurors, witnesses, and attorneys, has immunity for making defamatory statements in the course of the proceedings, as long as the statements are relevant to the proceedings.
- Executive Privilege – high ranking executive officers of state and federal government have immunity for making defamatory statements when acting within the scope of their duties. As with judicial privilege, the statements must be relevant to the proceedings or current duties to qualify as privilege.
- Domestic Privilege – a spouse has an absolute privilege to make defamatory statements about any third person to his or her spouse.
There are certain situations in which a person may claim he had a legitimate reason for making the defamatory statement. This would be a “conditional privilege,” also referred to as a “qualified privilege.” Statements that may qualify for a conditional privilege include:
- A statement made in an official governmental report or official governmental proceeding
- Testimony given by a civilian in a legislative proceeding
- A statement made in self defense, or for the purpose of warning others about harm or danger
- Certain statements made by a former employer to a potential employer regarding the employee
- Statements published in a book or file review, so long as the statements constitute fair criticism
In order to be successful in a claim of defamation against a person claiming privilege, the plaintiff must generally prove that the defendant acted intentionally out of spite, malice, or ill will, or for the purpose of causing harm.
Other situations in which a conditional privilege may apply include:
- A statement made for the purpose of protecting a third person
- A statement made to protect the publisher’s interest
- A statement made to protect the wellbeing of a family member
While a few states recognize extreme cases of defamation as a crime, prosecutions are rare, even in those jurisdictions. Slander and libel are considered to be civil wrongs, for which the law considers a monetary award to be a sufficient remedy for a wronged individual. In fact, while a successful plaintiff in a slander lawsuit may be awarded money, the court generally cannot force the defendant to retract the statement, or to publish an apology.
The laws governing defamation lawsuits vary by state, subject only to the free speech provisions of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. While the elements of defamation tend to be the same throughout the states, the procedures and remedies available often differ. By far, the most common remedy in a slander lawsuit is an award of monetary damages, though it is possible for the court to award punitive damages.
Punitive damages are ordered, not in compensation for the plaintiff’s loss, but to punish the defendant, or to dissuade him from taking similar actions in the future. Although punitive damages are about punishing the defendant, this monetary amount is also paid to the plaintiff.
Example of Slander Case
In 2009, Girls Gone Wild creator Joe Francis refused to pay billionaire casino mogul Steve Wynn a $2 million dollar debt owed to one of Wynn’s casinos. Francis then accused Wynn publicly of running his casinos deceptively, and that he mentioned Francis’ debt and threatened his life in an email. Francis publicly discussed the alleged emails in an interview on Good Morning America, stating that Wynn planned to hit Francis over the head with a shovel and bury him in the desert. Francis told the interviewer that he was afraid for his life.
Following the interview’s broadcast to a nation-wide audience, Wynn filed a slander lawsuit against Francis, claiming that Francis’ false statements harmed his reputation. At trial in 2012, Francis admitted that he had never personally read the email he claimed contained threats, but that it had been viewed by music producer Quincy Jones. Jones testified, however, that he had never seen such an email. The jury found in favor of Wynn, awarding him $20 million in damages, more than half of which was based on Francis’ interview on the television show.
Related Legal Terms and Issues
- Civil lawsuit – A lawsuit brought about in court when one person claims to have suffered a loss due to the actions of another person.
- Damages – A monetary award in compensation for a financial loss, loss of or damage to personal or real property, or an injury.
- Defamation – An intentional false statement that harms a person’s reputation, or which decreases the respect or regard in which a person is held.
- Defendant – A party against whom a lawsuit has been filed in civil court, or who has been accused of, or charged with, a crime or offense.
- Jurisdiction – The legal authority to hear legal cases and make judgments; the geographical region of authority to enforce justice.
- Liable – Responsible by law; to be held legally answerable for an act or omission.
- Monetary Damages – Money ordered by the court to be paid to an individual or entity as compensation for injury or loss caused by the wrongful conduct of another party.
- Opinion – A judgment formed about something which is not necessarily based on knowledge or fact.
- Plaintiff – A person who brings a legal action against another person or entity, such as in a civil lawsuit, or criminal proceedings.
- Punitive Damages – Money awarded to the injured party above and beyond their actual damages. Punitive damages may be awarded in cases where the defendant’s actions in regard to the case are malicious, or so reckless as to give a reasonable person pause. Punitive damages, also referred to as “exemplary damages,” are ordered for the purpose of punishing the wrongdoer for outrageous misconduct in a civil matter.
- Remedy – The enforcement of a right, or imposition of a penalty by a court of law.