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.

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