Nov 13, 2012 / 5:00 am
We all have someone in our life who we don’t like or who we hate. If that person’s name comes up in conversation, we certainly don’t say anything nice about them…
We need to be careful, though, that we don’t spread rumours about that person because some rumours can get us sued.
You have probably heard of ‘defamation’. But, just in case you haven’t, here is the legal definition: defamation is a communication about a person that hurts that person’s reputation. If the communication is spoken, then the defamation is called ‘slander’. If the communication is written, it is called ‘libel’.
If you defame someone, then you can be sued. And, the other person often doesn’t even have to prove that he/she suffered a financial loss from your remarks; a court will actually presume that he/she suffered losses and will make you pay!
So, what kinds of things are considered defamation? What can you say and, alternatively, what can you not say?
Well, the law only protects your reputation. It does not protect you from personal insults or from hurt feelings. So, if a person publicly calls you a jerk, then you will probably have to ‘suck it up’.
But, if someone does any one of the following things, then there could be trouble (and a lawsuit): 1) accuses you of committing a crime; 2) accuses you of having a (serious) contagious disease; 3) makes negative comments about your business; or 4) accuses you of cheating/adultery.
Also know that these types of comments/remarks must be made to someone else (and not just to the person that the statement is about). Otherwise, there is no lawsuit.
And, for your information, intentions are completely irrelevant. This means that it doesn’t matter whether or not you intended to harm another person’s reputation. If you make a defamatory statement, then you’re guilty, period (regardless of your intentions)!
You are probably thinking that you can’t make any negative comments, at all! This, of course, isn’t true. There are a few ‘defences’ to a defamation lawsuit.
One of the most common defences against a defamation lawsuit is ‘telling the truth’. This means that you can make a comment that hurts someone’s reputation as long as it is true. So, if you say that a particular person is accused of committing a crime (and it is actually true), then the other person’s defamation lawsuit is a ‘dead-end’.
Another big exception/defence is for journalists (which includes bloggers) to comment, even harshly, on matters of public interest (such as government issues). This exception/defence is called ‘fair comment’.
Another big exception/defence applies to job references. If a potential employer calls a person’s previous employer, then a claim for defamation cannot follow as long as the previous employer/reference acts honestly and without any bad intentions.
So, how common are defamation lawsuits? Answer: they’re rare. Most of the time, vicious rumours won’t lead to lawsuits. Reason: lawsuits are expensive, particularly defamation lawsuits. Defamation lawsuits MUST be commenced in Supreme Court (and cannot be commenced in the cheaper, more straightforward Small Claims Provincial Court).
Also know that the victim of defamation must sue the other person within two years of the defamation occurring – so don’t snooze!
As you can see, the law surrounding defamation tries to strike a balance between protecting your reputation and your freedom of expression. It’s a hard balance to strike.
And now you know.
**The information contained in this column should not be treated by readers as legal advice and should not be relied on without detailed legal counsel being sought.
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