If you have ever read the comments section of a news story online, you have likely seen a lot of negative comments about the people mentioned in the news story. With the Internet, anyone who has an opinion about something or someone can publish that opinion for the whole world to see. Unfortunately, this can lead to trouble for some people if lies are being spread about them in such a public manner. If you find your character is being assassinated online or in print, you can actually sue the person(s) responsible for defamation.
Not every negative statement about a person is considered defamatory.
A common misconception is that anything negative that's said about a person is defamatory. This isn't true. In order for the statements to be considered defamatory, they must be:
- Completely false, but reported as fact
- Have actually caused damage to you in some way
You will also need to prove that the person making the statement didn't practice due diligence with checking to make sure their statements were true. Of course, that would only apply to a journalist because, if a person is bad-mouthing you just to ruin your life, of course they know their statements are untrue.
If you can't prove that the negative statements caused you or your character any damage, then your defamation lawsuit will not succeed. Just because someone called you a bad name on a social networking site, doesn't mean you can sue them for defamation.
However, if you are a dentist and someone goes online and spreads false stories about your ability to practice dentistry and you see less patients as a result, you could possibly win your case.
If you're a public official or public figure, your case is even more difficult to prove.
Public officials and public figures have an added standard they must meet in order to prove defamation: they must prove actual malice. That means the public official or public figure can't sue the person who was behind the untrue statement unless it is found that the author knew it was untrue or they acted in reckless disregard of the truth. Without having to prove actual malice, reporters would likely be getting sued left and right for saying negative things about public officials and public figures.
This doesn't just mean you have to be a public official or public figure who is well-known nationally. For instance, if you are famous only in your town and you want to sue a local reporter for defamation, the same rule would apply to you. You would have to prove actual malice before you could win your case.
It is important to understand that defamation lawsuits are very difficult. With all of the things you have to prove in order to win, sometimes it can be more trouble than it's worth. However, a good civil law attorney can help find the proof that you need in order to win your defamation lawsuit.