Defamation, libel, and slander are related terms that refer to harm done to reputation or character through untrue, twisted, or malicious statements. Issues regarding these concepts may be as simple as high school gossip or as complicated as corporate litigation for defamation. Generally, defamation is the act of harming reputation through untrue or malicious statements, while libel and slander are considered forms or methods of defamation.
Reputation is incredibly important in human civilization; defamation lawsuits do not merely handle the hurt feelings of a person or entity, but instead attempt to determine if there is grounds for monetary damages based on actual harm caused. For instance, if a person states factually to the media that all of the products sold by a company are tainted with lead, that company may lose customers and stock value even if the statement is untrue or twisted. If the statement could be shown to be malicious and misleading, the person making the statement could be sued for defamation.
Libel is the term used to describe defamation when it is made in print or through written communication. Generally, the information must be given to a third party and published publicly; a person usually cannot be sued for libel for something he or she writes in a personal diary, for instance. It is also necessary for the libelous statement to cause measurable harm. A written lie that causes no damages may be a violation of integrity, but is usually not grounds for a lawsuit.
Slander is a verbal statement that causes defamatory damages. The statement in question usually must be made to a third party, and generally must be considered to be intended to have a malicious effect. It is interesting to note that slander laws do not always require quantifiable damages; if a person maliciously accuses another to a third party of criminal behavior, inability to perform work-related duties, or sexual misconduct, some regions allow civil prosecution.
The print, television, and Internet media must deal extensively with the possibility of defamation accusations. Since the media is usually considered a source of fact, any defamatory statements made through the press are usually given more weight and may result in higher damage levels and greater settlements for the plaintiff. Protection against defamation lawsuits is one of the major reasons that journalists are trained to check sources and receive multiple confirmations of a fact before printing or going on record with the information. Much modern criticism of the media relates to a breakdown in these standards, citing a growing quantity of unverified statements presented as fact.
Regional laws vary extensively, but in general libel and slander are considered civil rather than criminal offenses. People found guilty of defamation must usually pay fines to the plaintiff, rather than serve jail time or other penalties. In most areas, if a statement can be proven true, it is not eligible for prosecution even when made with malicious intent. It is also important to note that it is critical that the statement in question be presented as fact rather than opinion, as the right to free opinion is guaranteed in many areas.