What is a Calumny?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

A calumny is a malicious false statement which is intended to damage the reputation of a person, institution, or organization. The terms “vilification” and “defamation” may also be used to refer to calumny. In many regions of the world, there are laws which make such activities illegal, and people can face legal penalties for engaging in calumny. Such laws are sometimes controversial, as it can sometimes be difficult to determine whether or a not a statement is protected speech or not under free speech laws.

Slander is a spoken form of calumny.
Slander is a spoken form of calumny.

In order to be considered true calumny, several conditions must be met. Malice is important, as is knowledge of the fact that the statement is false. If someone repeats a false statement from someone else, or genuinely believes a statement to be true, this is not calumny. The statement must be made with injurious intent, and it must be demonstrated that the intent is not opinion or comment. Very fine lines can be drawn here and are repeatedly pushed in trial proceedings involving charges of calumny.

Libel occurs when a person makes a false, written statement intended to harm another person.
Libel occurs when a person makes a false, written statement intended to harm another person.

The terms “libel” and “slander” often come up in the context of calumny. These terms are both different types of defamation, distinguished by the form they take. Libel is something which is published in print, such as a newspaper or another reasonably fixed medium. By contrast, slander is a spoken form of calumny. In any case, the act of defamation must occur in a context in which it was clear that people other than the person being defamed were intended to hear. False statements made directly to the person involved with no witnesses present may not be very nice, but they are not calumny.

Under the law, such actions may be treated as a civil wrong or tort, but they can also be treated as a criminal offense under some laws and in some regions. In cases where it is a civil wrong, the person being defamed has the right to take the person making false statements to court to recover damages. In addition to paying damages, the person engaging in vilification may also be ordered to make other reparations, such as retracting the statement. Criminal wrongs can result in jail time.

Sometimes, the line between true calumny and protected, albeit impolite, speech is very thin. In several regions of the world, there are concerns that defamation laws are sometimes used for a chilling effect, with the goal of silencing people, rather than providing people with a legitimate way to right a wrong. Powerful companies and individuals may attempt to abuse defamation laws in order to quiet dissent, and courts must tread carefully when weighing the evidence to ensure that they do not inadvertently apply the law incorrectly.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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