Fighting words

Libel, slander, and defamation

Last week, we promised that you were liable to be surprised by the differences between “libel,” “slander,” and “defamation.” We won’t get too much into case law, which interprets those terms from a practical standpoint, but we’ll look at how they can and should be used in ordinary writing.

“Defamation” is the broad umbrella under which stand both “libel” and “slander.” “Defamation” is any attack on the reputation of someone, regardless of how it appears. Almost by definition, the attack has to be seen or heard by someone else, or the target’s reputation is not threatened, and it’s not much more than an “insult.”

Conventional wisdom holds that “libel” is defamation that is printed and “slander” is defamation that is spoken. That’s overly simplistic, especially given that many things that are spoken are also “printed” in the sense that they may be transcribed, or published on a website.

“Libel” originally meant simply something that was printed, usually a declaration or certificate of some kind. It’s derived from a diminutive of “liber,” or “little book.” Soon, however, “libel” came to be associated with publications attacking someone’s reputation.

Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary says “libel” is “a written or oral defamatory statement or a representation or suggestion that conveys an unjustly unfavorable impression.” Note that “oral” is included in the dictionary definition: In United States law, “libel” is generally held to be a defamatory statement that is “published,” and “published” is taken to mean accessible after the initial statement, or more permanent than something not recorded. So something spoken that’s available on YouTube can be considered libelous.

As for “slander,” most dictionaries include variations of the words “oral” or “utterance,” but basically, “slander” is a more transitory form of “libel”: something nasty said with a Snapchat, perhaps. In most jurisdictions, the defamation needs to result in economic loss to be considered “slander.” The word derives from older words for “scandal,” and, unlike the benign history of “libel,” “slander” has always represented nastiness.

The real problem is that “libel” and “slander” are legal terms, the way “homicide” and “murder” are. Just as not all killings are homicides, and not all homicides are murder, not all “defamations” are “libel” or “slander,” and not all attacks on reputations are “defamations.”

Legal definitions and case law will vary by jurisdiction, so using “slander” or “libel” without a legal accusation having been made or threatened is fraught: In the US, for example, the dead cannot be “libeled” and the truth is considered an absolute defense to a “libel” charge. But in British law, the dead can be “libeled,” and, The Oxford Dictionary of Law says, “truth is a defence only if the statement was published for the public benefit.”

That means writers should be aware that “defamation,” “libel,” and “slander” mean different things to different people, depending on where they live, and be careful about throwing those terms about.

The safe route, as is often the case, is to not label the accusation at all, but to describe it, as in “Jones claims that Smith told clients she was a crook.” But beware: Repeating the “defamation,” even in merely reporting it, can be considered just as “libelous” or “slanderous” as the original. And if it turns out that Jones made no such claim, yours may turn out to be the one “libel.”

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.