Some people incorrectly use the terms “slander" and "libel” interchangeably, but the law makes a clear distinction between the two. Both terms refer to defamation, something untrue that is written or said, or even in some cases portrayed pictorially or visually, that will greatly harm a person’s reputation or diminish the regard others hold him in. Libel is defamation that is written, and legal slander is defamation that is said aloud.
A person who feels he has been the victim of legal slander must prove it by meeting certain criteria if he is going to sue the person or institution he feels has defamed him. The criteria include proving that at least one person, in addition to the person who believes he was slandered, also understood the statement in question in the same defamatory light. A person accused of slander or libel often can turn for recourse to a strong defense on the basis of truth; if the statement or written material is true, usually it is not considered legal slander or libel. There are other defenses, including accident and consent.
Another important defense against legal slander is called privilege. Privilege is conferred to witnesses testifying in a courtroom, and the same privilege applies to lawyers arguing their cases. Privilege is also afforded to legislators in certain circumstances as well as to a judge who is speaking from his bench. Another defense is opinion, meaning an argument can be made that a statement that was rendered as an opinion is not slanderous. Some courts, however, are no longer swayed by this defense.
The average person can be the subject of legal slander or the alleged perpetrator, and so can public figures. In the mid-1960s, however, the United States Supreme Court ruled that public figures who accuse others of legal slander or libel must prove there was malice behind the spoken or written words, and the alleged slanderer or libeler knew what he was saying was untrue. Much of legal slander laws before that time were ruled on by courts in various states according to their own state laws. There are standards for legal slander in countries other than the United States, and criteria can vary from country to country.
Many courts will acknowledge a situation called per se defamation. In this case, the court has the option of presuming harm was done to a person, such as if someone accused a person of suffering from a sexually transmitted disease. This can also pertain to slander against someone’s professional standing, or slander against someone’s morals as judged by community standards.