The line between defamation and free speech is not always clear. Free societies value citizens’ freedom to speak their minds. However, a person’s or business’s reputation should not be destroyed by lies.
Defamation in written form is called “libel” and “slander” when spoken. Defamation is not considered a crime, but those who are harmed can file civil lawsuits to recover damages.
Identifying business defamation
Defamation protects businesses from harm when someone lies, but it’s not always easy to spot. Companies and people are defamed, generally, when:
- A false statement is made that harms their reputation
- The false statement wasn’t offered as an opinion, but as fact
- It is published, broadcast or communicated to a third party
- The target of the defamatory statement suffers harm
In some cases, plaintiffs can hold companies or employers accountable when their employees make a defamatory statement.
Should you pursue a defamation claim?
Just because someone makes a snarky or mean statement about your business doesn’t make it defamatory. It’s advisable to consult with an experienced defamation attorney before taking any action. Here are some things to consider:
- Was it intended as fact?: If the comment wasn’t meant as a provable fact and was offered only as a mean-spirited gibe, it’s likely not defamatory.
- Was it an accurate statement?: If so, there’s little chance you would come out on top of a defamation case. Truth is often used as a defense.
- Don’t use the DMCA: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act applies only to removing content that violates copyright laws. It does not deal with defamation, which is a tort case.
- Unwanted publicity: News organizations and others can focus on defamation cases if the subject matter is considered “juicy.” Will that attention be worse than the original statement?
“False light” laws
Pennsylvania is one of several states with so-called “false light” laws. These statutes forbid the dissemination of material that portrays the intended target in a bad light. It must also be offensive to a “reasonable” person.
However, unlike defamation, the harmful statement doesn’t have to be intended as factual. In these cases, people who make mean-spirited comments can be held accountable for damages.