In the day of the internet, anyone has the ability to publish and promote their views to the public.
We hear a lot about ‘trolls’ online making people’s lives miserable, but where do you stand legally if untrue and damaging things are said about you?
Defamation is the legal term used to describe statements which are said, written or implied about a person, group of people or an organisation which are untrue and which seriously harm their reputation.
These can include social media posts, negative business reviews, incorrect media reports, and allegations on websites.
What constitutes defamation in the eyes of the law?
- Serious harm
Defamation requires that there has been serious harm to a person’s reputation or that there is a good chance of it occurring. A distinction must be drawn between ‘tittle tattle’ and serious harm. Jokes about someone’s dancing after consuming too much sparkling wine are not the same as suggesting that the same person is an alcoholic, or has performed brain surgery whilst under the influence of alcohol.
- Spread of the damage
A negative statement made to just one other person is enough to claim defamation. However, the level of possible compensation will depend on the level of damage caused. For example, where a false allegation has been posted on social media with a potentially huge readership it’s highly likely that the damage will be worse than if the same comment was made in an email to just one person.
- Time limits
Defamation claims must be issued to courts within 12 months of the date of first publication. If repeated, similar material is published then the clock will start to tick from the first time the defamatory statement is made.
What defamation is NOT
- The truth
Comments which are true are not capable of being defamatory, no matter how far they are spread or how potentially embarrassing they might be. Truth is an absolute defence to a claim for defamation.
An account of a dispute is not defamatory providing the author remains impartial and accurate.
- Absolute privilege
Defamation claims cannot be brought where statements are made within certain privileged contexts, for example anything said in court, communications between police officers and parliamentary proceedings.
- An honest opinion
A person might express an opinion which is later found not to be true. If, at the time the statement was made, there existed some factual basis for it and it was an honestly held opinion they may use this as a defence.
- Public interest
If someone believes that the statement was a matter of public interest, they can claim that it was not defamatory.