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Truth and Defamation: Is truth always a defense for defamation in the U.S.?

truth and defamation law
Is truth always a successful defense for defamation?

Truth and defamation. Under U.S. law, how does it work? Is truth always — under all possible circumstances — a successful defense against slander or libel? If a newspaper or blog gets most of the story right, but flubs a few details, can it be successfully sued for defamation, or do courts forgive minor errors? We’ll answer these questions below, plus delve a little deeper into the nuances of truth and defamation law.

First, A Bit of Defamation Law History That Will Have You Sounding Like Cicero At Your Next Dinner Party

Edward I’s Government Waves Through First “Libel Law”

In 1275, when Edward I ruled Britania, the first libel statute hit Common Law books. Called the Scandalis Magnatum (translation: “libels upon peers”), the statute detailed the crime of — and punishments for — spreading “false rumors that cause public mischief.” From Sage Wisdom:

The goal of the statutes was to preserve good relations between the Crown and the nobility as well as among the nobles themselves. Unlike other forms of libel, Scandalis Magnatum did not require that the false news or tale be directed at an individual.

Medieval Defamation = Pissing Off The King

In medieval times, if you caused the king headaches — via gossip or truth-rumor — then you were screwed. Back in the day, defamation equaled smack talk. It didn’t matter if you were telling the truth or speaking opinion. If you caused problems for the king and realm, under the de scandalisn magnatum, you were toast.

Back in the day, defamation equaled smack talk. It didn’t matter if you were telling the truth or speaking opinion.

Truth Becomes A Possible Defense For Defamation In The 17th Century

Things went along like this for some time. But, by the late 17th century (1600s), truth as a defense for defamation became an acceptable legal principle. It didn’t always work for the defendant, but it was worth a shot and sometimes did prove a successful defense.

Truth As A Defense For Defamation Makes Its Way To “The Colonies”

Fast forward to 1733. John Peter Zenger went on trial for allegedly defaming then New York Governor, Bill Cosby. In a tour de force legal performance, Andrew Hamilton represented Zenger (on the behest of Benjamin Franklin) by arguing truth – and won. It was the first time in “the colonies” that truth had worked as a defense in a high-profile libel suit.

For the most part, since Crown v. Zenger, truth has been an acceptable defamation defense in the United States. That does not mean, however, that truth works 100% of the time.

Noonan v. Staples: Truth And Defamation Clash; Truth Lost.

Truth is almost always a valid and acceptable defense for defamation under U.S. law — except when it’s not.

Truth is almost always a valid and acceptable defense for defamation under U.S. law — except when it’s not.

Though rare, someone who tells the truth can still lose a defamation lawsuit. One such “exception to the rule” case is Noonan v. Staples.

Noonan v. Staples Case Facts

  • Alan Noonan lost his job at Staples (the office supply chain) because of irregularities on his expense account.
  • Upon Noonan’s firing, one of his superiors sent over 1,000 Staples employees – many of which had no reason to know the details of Noonan’s departure – an e-mail outlining the reasons for his ouster.
  • Prior to Noonan’s leaving, other employees had been let go for the same reason, but never was an email sent out in the same manner as it did for Noonan.

E-mail Libel Plaintiff’s Argument: Even Though What You Said Was True, It Was Malicious And Therefore Defamatory

Noonan argued that even though the email was factually accurate, the sinister tenor of it could lead a “reasonable person” to conclude he was a criminal.

Judges: “Malice Trumps Truth For Private Citizens, So The Win Goes To Plaintiff.”

The judges’ decision rested on an obscure defamation provision in Massachusetts addressing “actual malice.” In short, actual malice is a standard that must be met by famous claimant in slander and libel suits. Basically, said famous person has to prove that the defendant knowingly lied, as opposed to private citizens who only have to prove that the defendant acted negligently.

An action is committed with actual malice if the plaintiff can prove the defendant knowingly lied to cause harm. What’s unique about Massachusetts state law is that actual malice trumps truth in cases where the plaintiff is a private citizen.

What’s unique about Massachusetts state law is that actual malice trumps truth in cases where the plaintiff is a private citizen.

To illustrate, let’s say you’re an average Joe living in Massachusetts, and someone says something negative, but true, about you. If you can prove that the trash-talker intended to harm you, then you still have a shot at winning a defamation suit.

In Noonan, due to the spiteful nature of the email (remember, Noonan’s boss had never sent a similar email when other employees were fired for the same reasons as Noonan), and since his firing was not a matter of public interest, but unnecessary people got the email anyway, Alan Noonan, truth defamation plaintiff, prevailed.

Opinion Supported By False Facts?

Another defamation “truth pitfall” is when someone makes a “truthful” statement based on false facts. In such circumstances, a plaintiff can win the case – especially if he or she can prove negligence in the collection of said false supporting facts.

Substantial Truth is Also a Valid Defamation Defense — Sometimes

The flip side of the defamation truth coin is the issue of “substantial truth.” Truth is a longstanding defense for defamation, but, once upon a time, the truth standard resulted in some terrible rulings, thanks to defendants who bungled an otherwise truthful statement by way of a minor error.

Judges & Juries Are Most Concerned With The “Gist” of The Story

To correct the loophole, judges introduced the concept of “substantial truth,” meaning that if the gist of a story is truthful, and only a small detail is wrong, then it’s not considered defamation.

For example, in one oft-quoted truth defamation case, a newspaper ran a story about a government official who wasted $80,000 of taxpayer funds. The actual figure, however, was $17,500. Despite the mistake, the tax-wasting official didn’t win his defamation suit because the judge ruled that the actual amount wasted was inconsequential; what mattered was that the politician wasted tax money.

Accusations Of Recidivism, However, Don’t Enjoy “Substantial Truth” Protections

One common situation in which “substantial truth” doesn’t apply is if the defendant says the plaintiff is somehow a recidivist offender, when, indeed, the offense only happened once. For example, a woman once won a defamation lawsuit because someone called her a “dirty old whore” – but in reality she had only had one extra-marital affair.

A woman once won a defamation lawsuit because someone called her a “dirty old whore” – but in reality she had only had one extra-marital affair.

Store Owner And Defamation Plaintiff Beat Substantial Truth Defense Because Weed Is Not Heroin

A store owner in Hawaii, however, once beat a “substantial truth” defense by arguing “literal truth” – and he won!

In his case, even though a local newspaper was accurate in reporting his store as part of a police drug bust, the story said that police had found heroin, hashish and morphine, when in reality only a small amount of weed had been found at his store. In that instance, the store owner who brought the defamation suit won – because the culturally perceived criminality of “weed” versus “heroin” surpassed acceptable “substantial truth standards.”

If You Don’t Have A Solid Defamation Case, Other Torts May Work

If the facts of your situation don’t quite fit the mold of a successful defamation suit, you may not be out of luck. Depending on your jurisdiction, other civil torts may be available for you to plead. For example, residents of California (and a few other states) may be able to claim “false light” – a tort similar to defamation. In other cases, “intentional infliction of emotional distress” is also an option.

Get In Touch With A Defamation Attorney Quickly If You’re Suffering From A Libel or Slander Problem. The Statute Of Limitations Isn’t Long.

Truth and defamation cases are usually nuanced, so it’s best to consult an attorney well acquainted with slander and libel case law. Our firm has successfully handled countless defamation cases – and we’re ready to help fix your problem, too. Get in touch today to learn more about your legal options.

Fair Comment and Criticism Definition

After months of debate, the UK is finally formally debating a new defamation statute. In early May, Queen Elizabeth II announced in her fancy Speech that defamation reformations outlined in the Lord Lester of Herne Hill’s bill will become a hot Parliamentary topic. In short, the reforms increase free speech rights and restrict jurisdictional standards – which may significantly decrease libel tourism in London.

Due to the large amount of press garnered by the new UK defamation law, the concept of “fair comment” is a hot legal topic. What is fair comment? What does it have to do with defamation law? Is fair comment even an acceptable defense in slander and libel lawsuits in the United States? Below is a quick legal guide to the legal concept of “fair comment.”

I Just Need A Quick Legal Definition Of ‘Fair Comment and Criticism’

In the most basic terms, fair comment is a common law defense against defamation that aims to guarantee the freedom of the press to express statements on matters of public interest. Generally speaking, a given truthful statement can be considered a “fair comment” so long as it’s not made with ill-will, spite, or with intent to harm.

Justice Brennan, the Supreme Court Judge who wrote a seminal U.S. defamation ruling (New York Times, Inc. v. Sullivan), once explained that the “privilege of the fair comment depends on the truth of the facts upon which the comment is based.”

Is Fair Comment Commonly Used In Defamation Lawsuits In The United States Today?

In 1964, the United States Supreme Court passed down a law-changing ruling in the case of New York Times, Inc. v. Sullivan — it’s the famous defamation lawsuit that made ‘actual malice’ a standard in slander and libel claims filed by public figures.

Actual malice deals with intent. In basic terms, if an individual knowingly publishes or broadcasts a false statement with the intent to harm, then they’re doing it with “actual malice.” If a media outlet or individual distributes material in “good faith” — and the topic is a legitimate matter of public interest — then a judge or jury may rule that the act was not malicious, hence, the actual malice standard would not be met and the defendant would probably get off.

Technically, though, a fair comment defense could still be argued if the standard of actual malice is not a factor in the lawsuit – which would mean the suing party would have to be a “purely private person.” Plus, you’d have to have some very convincing evidence – and an even stronger argument – to use a “fair comment” defense.

The ultimate bottom line: Free speech standards in the U.S. basically render the defense of “fair comment” obsolete.

Fair Comment and Criticism Definition in Canada, England and Wales

While fair comment may not be an oft-used defamation defense in the United States these days, it still plays a role in slander and libel cases in commonwealth countries like Canada, England and Wales.

Under Canadian defamation law, fair comment can only be used as a defense when the issue at hand is a matter of public interest – excluding gossip – based on known and provable facts with no malice. It must also be an opinion capable of being held by any “reasonable” person.

In the UK, fair comment has played a disruptive role in the country’s legal history. In fact, it’s one of the factors that contributed to the current defamation reformations. The reason fair comment is a hot point of contention in the UK is because it’s been broadly interpreted, which, in the past, ultimately led to weaker slander and libel laws.

At the time of this writing, it’s too soon to tell whether or not the newly enacted defamation regulations will have a significant effect on solidifying the legal argument of fair comment in the “Queen’s land.”

In summary, fair comment and criticism is a legal standard usually used in defamation lawsuits. Its purpose is to protect those who voice opinions on matters of civil public interest. While fair comment is not much used anymore as a defense in U.S., slander and libel lawsuits – due to superseding statutes – it’s still very much a part of the legal framework in some Commonwealth countries.

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