Libel & Invasion of Privacy

Libel (written) and slander (spoken) are real problems for the news media, freelance journalists, public relations and advertising people, although the latter may have more risk of trade libel than the more traditional form of libel.  We'll talk about the generically as libel.

There are five elements that must be satisfied for there to be a libel: a false statement, that is published, that is of or concerning the person or entity claiming injury, that causes injury to that person or entity, and that is not privileged. People often talk about "defamation" as though it were a synonym for libel, but in reality, defamation is an injury to reputation. Thus, you can have a defamation by publication of true information and it would not be libelous.

Added to this, if the person is a public official or public figure s/he must prove "actual malice" to win any damages -- that the publisher knew the information was false or published in reckless disregard for the truth. If the person is a private figure, in most states s/he need only prove negligence to win damages -- that a reasonable speaker in similar circumstances would have know or found out the information was false and not published it. There are some people who are general-purpose public figures, often celebrities, because they have sought to make their names household words. Others are limited-purpose public figures who have thrust themselves into the limelight with regard to specific issues (i.e.leaders of the opposition to a school bond referendum). They may be treated as public figures when discussing the school bond referendum, but if you comment about their family lives they would only have to prove your error was the result of negligence.