Libel is when a person writes something false about someone that is legally considered to be defamation. Libel is the written variation of slander, which is when someone speaks something that is considered to be defamation. With the introduction of the internet and instant messenger services, successful arguments have been made that in some cases written word on the internet can be slander and not libel. As such, in most jurisdictions libel and slander are today used interchangeably.
Specific things that must be argued in libel cases
In addition to the arguments that must be made for a case of defamation, there are a number of specific claims that must be made in order to have a successful case for libel:
- That what is written is either published or else distributed to a large audience.
- That what is written is either a complete piece in itself or else is taken in correct context.
- That there can be no confusion as to what was said or meant.
These arguments are comparable with the specific arguments that must be made in slander cases.
Must be published
The definition of publishing a document can be debatable. Whilst a best selling book is obviously published, as is a song or a mainstream TV show, there is debate as to whether such a thing as a document presented to a teacher, which may only ever be seen by one person, is not. What is written in a private diary cannot be considered to be a published document, even if that diary is photographed and presented to thousands of people.
Proving that something is published is a very difficult thing to do, especially with regards to the internet, which is why most jurisdictions now consider most internet communications to be slander and not libel, or else combine the two.
Essentially, it must be proven not only that many people saw the document but that it was the intention of the person who wrote the document that they intended for it to be viewed by many people.
Some examples of what equates to published
- A book published by a major publishing house and/or which makes a best selling list.
- A song or album presented by a major record label and/or becomes a hit single or album.
- A web page that is published and can be viewed by anyone anywhere on the internet.
- A newsletter that is publicly presented (either to a school, workplace, sporting club, other club, or something similar).
- A magazine.
Some examples of what does not equate to published
- A private diary written for your own viewing.
- A private letter written from one person to one other person.
- A private e-mail written from one person to one other person.
- A private web page that is not publicly accessible (e.g. "friends only" or requires passwords/payments to access).
- Communication in one-to-one instant messenger conversations.
Some debatable examples
- A web site which is presented privately, but has a large membership list (for example Tila Tequila's 5 million personal friends on MySpace).
- An e-mail that is shown to many people.
That it is in context
In the case of a complete, published novel, a music album or single, or a complete presentation of some kind, context is relatively easy to prove. It becomes more difficult to prove where it is an individual, partial piece. This is especially difficult to prove in the context of the internet, which is another reason why internet communications are often considered to be slander.
For example, consider that someone wrote something on a web forum, as one message in response to another person's statements. Later on, someone may have either copied that message, or else an administrator had deleted the messages that they were responding to, thus taking it out of context.
It must be able to be proved that what was said could not feasibly be taken out of context, that it was definitely intended to mean what it was interpreted to mean by the complainant, and that it is a stand alone message. Alternatively, they can provide further evidence of several statements that together prove a context.
This is a very debatable aspect of libel law, and can lead to differing judgements depending on the court who judges the case.
That there can be no confusion as to what was meant
Similarly with slander cases, it must be able to be proven that what was written would be interpreted by most people reading it to mean what the complainant says that it means. Many words and phrases can have multiple meanings, depending on how they are understood.