Slander and libel are both types of defamation, which refers to statements that damage another person's reputation. While there are similarities, each focuses on different types of defamation strategy. The primary difference between slander and libel is that libel is the written or otherwise printed public defamation of a person or entity, while slander is the spoken defamation of a person or entity. Slander can also include bodily gestures while libel can include published photographs.
The Elements of Defamation
Although the law as to what constitutes defamation varies by jurisdiction, there are four basic elements that must usually be shown:
- The statement must be "published" — meaning that someone else has heard or seen it, whether through printing, speaking, gesturing, or some other method;
- It must be false, not an opinion or a fact;
- The statement must be injurious, meaning that it causes damage to the person's reputation;
- It must not be privileged, or published in a situation — such as a courtroom or legislative chamber — that has specific speech protections.
What Is Slander?
Slander involves verbally maligning the reputation or activities of another individual or entity, using information that is known to be false or misleading. Typically, this will involve not only the use of specific words to damage a reputation, but also actions such as hand gestures or facial expressions in order to reinforce the misinformation that is being distributed. Any defamation that is "transitory" — in other words, not fixed in a permanent medium — is usually considered slander.
One of the easiest ways to understand slander is to consider the example of actions of an employee who is unhappy with his company's policies and procedures. At an event including employees with their spouses and partners, the disgruntled employee begins to spread untrue information about the business and its owners. As part of his remarks, the employee may state that the company owners engage in business activities that are illegal as well as unethical. Unless the employee has reliable evidence to back up these claims against the specific people identified in the statements, he could be held liable for slander.
What Is Libel?
Like slander, libel refers to statements that damage another person's reputation. The difference is that libel takes the form of printed — or otherwise "fixed" — material rather than verbal assaults. Typically, libel in the United States can involve untrue words or images that are published in print publications as well as material published on a web site.
Continuing with the example of the disgruntled employee, he may choose to leave the company and write an exposé of the owners and the company operations. The exposé includes not only the untrue information that was previously deployed verbally, but also may include photographs that were taken and then used out of context to reinforce the purported validity of the lies. This type of activity would likely constitute libel.
Slander and Libel in the Electronic Age
Laws in various nations distinguish between slander and libel somewhat differently, especially when it comes to electronic communications. Depending on the laws that prevail in a given nation, untruths that are distributed by way of radio, television, or the Internet may be classed as slander or libel. In most countries, it is necessary to establish that the individual who originated the untrue information did so with a full understanding that the comments were false and that they were disseminated with the specific intention to malign or harm the reputation of another person or entity.
Criticism vs. Slander or Libel
While the right to fairly criticize people or entities and publicly share information is one of the hallmarks of personal freedom, it is illegal in most places to malign the reputation of another through false information. Verbal comments as well as printed materials that can be supported with verifiable evidence cannot be considered defamation, even when that information does damage the reputation of another party. This is because the information is in fact the truth, and not fabrications created by someone who wishes to undermine the reputation of another through any means necessary. In other words, in some jurisdictions, the truth is a valid defense to defamation, including libel and slander.