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A tort of defamation is a type of legal action brought against a person who is accused of making, usually false, claims about another person or organization which are considered potentially damaging to the reputation of the person or organization. This type of defamation will typically be of one of two types: either libel, which means that these damaging claims or statements are made in writing or a similar medium, or slander, in which the claims are made verbally. A tort of defamation will usually be a civil case, though in some countries it can fall under criminal jurisdiction.
Regardless of the type of defamation tort, defamation typically occurs by one party and is spoken or written to a third party about a second party; the second party is then able to bring a civil or criminal case against the first party. In general, a tort refers to any type of action considered to be a breach of civil responsibility and can be pursued by one person against another in a civil court or through a civil case. Most countries utilize tort law in regard to incidents of defamation, though in some countries defamation against the government or political figures can be prosecuted under criminal codes.
In Italy, Denmark, and the Czech Republic, for example, the laws do not recognize a tort of defamation and instead make defamation, insult, or marks against another person’s honor a criminal act. Defaming a person in these countries can result in someone serving time in prison and paying a large fine. In the United Kingdom and the United States, laws establish libel and slander as forms of a defamation tort and only result in fines, not prison time.
A tort of defamation in the US can be defended against in a number of ways. One of the oldest defenses against accusations of defamation is to prove that the statement made is true and relevant to the common good of the public. In some countries truth is not enough to defend against a tort of defamation, but in the US it is commonly considered a strong enough defense. There are some cases, however, where the truth of a statement is not sufficient reason for the statement to be made.
In these cases, the person accused of defamation must usually prove that the statement was made in the interest of the common good. Revealing unsafe or unethical business practices by a company will typically be considered in the best interests of the public. Discovering and releasing sensitive, private medical information about a politician, however, may not fall into this defense and though the information may be true it could still constitute defamation. The First Amendment to the US Constitution and other international protections of “free speech” cannot typically be used as a defense for defamation.
Defamation cases are notoriously difficult to win. There is a distinction between an opinion and a statement of fact, for one thing. I can sit in my own home and say "I think (a famous actor) is a drunken idiot" all day long. I haven't said it or wrote it publicly, and the actor hasn't lost any work because of my opinion. If I took out an ad in Variety magazine that read "Don't hire (a famous actor) because he's a raging alcoholic", then I could be sued for defamation. I have damaged the man's reputation in a very public way.
The other problem is that the accusation must be false. Embarrassment is not the same as defamation. The
famous actor may not want his problems with alcohol aired publicly, but it's still true. It's still not defamation of character. In order to win a defamation lawsuit, the accusation would have to be proven false and there would have to be evidence that others believed it and took action because of it.