What constitutes defamation varies among jurisdictions, but in the United States generally, a defamation lawsuit is a court action based upon the allegation that the defendant damaged the plaintiff's reputation by way of slander or libel. Slander refers to spoken defamation, but it can also entail an impermanent public statement, such as sign language. Libel refers to defamation via a printed medium or made in some other type of fixed form. In most cases a true statement can't constitute libel or slander, even if it damages a plaintiff's reputation.
In the US, defamation lawsuits, like all lawsuits, are a matter of civil law, not criminal law. While most causes of action for defamation are settled out of court, those that do proceed to judgment have two possible remedies — injunction or monetary damages. Many factors govern whether a defamation lawsuit will succeed at trial, but some generally accepted standards have evolved through rulings over the years.
A plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit, typically must establish that the defendant made a false, defamatory statement about the plaintiff. That statement must have been heard by others and caused injury to plaintiff's reputation. It's important to note that statements of opinion usually cannot constitute defamation; opinion statements are protected as free speech under the First Amendment.
A plaintiff must also establish that the offending statement was made in an unprivileged environment. Statements in some forums, such as a court proceeding, are not typically actionable as slander or libel. That is because court is viewed as a privileged environment. A false statement made in court, however, may be prosecuted criminally as perjury.
Official proceedings, such as meetings of elected officials, may also constitute privileged environments. This is called the fair report privilege. It exists on the premise that what is said in these forums is automatically of public interest. That means that if a city councilman tells a defamatory lie in an official meeting, a news reporter is protected in giving an account of the occurrence.
A defamation plaintiff usually must show that the offending statement caused harm. This is generally easiest to prove if the harm is quantifiable and affected the defendant's community standing and earning power. Some claims, however, are widely considered damaging or defamatory per se. That means that if the statement's occurrence is established, the damage may not have to be proved. Examples include false assertions that someone committed a crime, has an abhorrent disease, is mentally unfit to do business or has engaged in sexual misconduct.
Not every plaintiff is viewed as equal through the lens of defamation law. If a defendant successfully argues that a plaintiff is a public figure, the plaintiff's burden of proof in a defamation lawsuit becomes heavier than it would be in a claim against a private person. To establish that libel has been committed against a public figure, for example, the plaintiff usually must also show that the defendant exhibited actual malice. That is a legal standard requiring that one of two conditions existed when the offending statement occurred. The defendant must either have known it was false, or the defendant must have exhibited reckless disregard for whether the statement was false.
Defamation law is a highly specialized area. Many aspects of it vary from state to state in the U.S. Even broader variations exist internationally. Experts advise that prospective plaintiffs and defendants consult an attorney with experience in the finer points.