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What is defamation?

It goes without saying that today’s workplace, whether in California or elsewhere, often is less than pleasant. Discrimination comes in an almost infinite variety of types, forms and levels of severity. While women are the most common victims, men are by no means immune.

One of the most frequent types of workplace discrimination is harassment of one form or another. Verbal harassment generally takes the form of one employee aiming hurtful and/or offensive words at another, either in private or in front of other employees.

At its low end, verbal harassment can consist of off-color, insensitive and/or discriminatory “jokes” that in most instances you must put up with because they are not truly harmful to you or anyone else. At its high end, verbal harassment can rise to the level of verbal assault or possibly even defamation.

The five elements of defamation

Defamation is a civil wrong that covers a wide range of words that not only are false, but also hurt your reputation. Slander is the type of defamation where your reputation becomes damaged by spoken words that people hear. Libel is the type where someone prints and publishes the words and other people read them.

When someone defames you in the workplace, you can sue him or her, and possibly your employer as well, for both workplace discrimination and defamation. If someone defames you in a nonemployment situation, you can sue for defamation alone.

To prevail in a defamation suit, you must prove the following five things:

  1. An individual made a statement.
  2. (S)he published the statement.
  3. The statement was false.
  4. The statement injured you.
  5. The statement was not privileged.

In this instance, the word “publish” does not mean that the statement had to appear in print or online. It merely means that someone other than you and the person who made the statement heard or saw it. Thus the statement can be either spoken or written.

As for falsity, the statement must be a lie. You cannot sue someone for defamation if (s)he says or writes something about you that is true, no matter how hurtful that truth is to you and your reputation. In addition, the statement must be a deliberate lie, not a negative opinion that the person expressed about you. Due to the subjective nature of opinions, they are exempt from the definition of defamation.

In rare situations, even a deliberate injurious lie cannot give rise to a defamation suit. For instance, if someone is a trial witness and makes a false injurious statement about you, (s)he may be subject to perjury charges for lying under oath, but you cannot sue him or her civilly for defamation because witness statements are privileged, even when false.

Finally, you must prove that the statement actually injured your reputation in one way or another. For instance, if someone spread a vicious lie about you at work and your employer believed it and fired you as a consequence, there is no doubt about the damage to your reputation, particularly at that place of employment.

Social media

Everyone knows that the advent of such mass media outlets as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have given rumor mongers and other people with less than good intentions ever more opportunity to damage the reputations of others, including perfect strangers who they have never even met. In addition, online defamatory statements reach a huge audience almost instantaneously. As if this were not bad enough, such statements often get re-posted and/or re-tweeted over and over again. It is no wonder that defamation is a civilly suable wrong.

If someone truly defames you rather than merely hurting your feelings by something (s)he says or writes, do not hesitate to sue. Just make sure you can prove all five defamation elements before you file suit.

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