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What is Defamation, and How Does It Work?

Defamation is the “act of communicating false statements about a person that injures the reputation of that person” and may be accomplished through either slander or libel. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Slander is the act of speaking false statements of another, while libel is the printing of a false statement about another.

The purpose of defamation is to protect an individual’s reputation from unwanted publicity, specifically regarding patently false statements. An individual has the right not to have his or her reputation damaged by another without some type of justification.

In Massachusetts, the elements of a defamation claim are: (1) a false and defamatory communication; (2) of and concerning the plaintiff which is; (3) published or shown to a third party. See Carmack v. National R.R. Passenger Corp, 486 F.Supp.2d 58 (D.Mass 2007). By proving the above three elements, a plaintiff will have a prima facie case for defamation. In addition, a plaintiff must also prove the defendant’s fault in publishing the statement amounted to at least negligence. The statute of limitations for defamation in Massachusetts is three years. M.G.L. c. 260 § 4.

Massachusetts courts recognize a number of privileges and defenses in the context of defamation actions, including substantial truth, the opinion and fair comment privilege[1], the wire service defense[2], and the fair report privilege. Defendants largely rely on the defense of substantial truth. According to that defense, if a statement is substantially true, it cannot be actionable as defamation. See Milgroom v. News Group Boston, 412 Mass. 9, 12-13 (1992). However, if a plaintiff can prove actual malice, then truth will not be a justification for the statement. See M.G.L. c. 231 § 92.

Practically speaking, it is important to look at who the plaintiff is in a defamation suit. For example, a public official has a different burden of proof as opposed to a private individual. In Massachusetts, a public official is any elected official holding a public office. See Lane v. MPG Newspapers, 438 Mass. 476, 482-82 (2003). A public official must prove that the defendant has acted with actual malice in order to prevail on a defamation claim. This is a higher burden than simply proving that the defendant negligently published a false statement, as is the case for private individuals.

If you need more information about tort law or personal injury, you may schedule a free consultation with our office. Call 978-225-9030 during regular business hours or complete a contact form and we will respond to your phone call or submission promptly.

[1] See Leidholdt v. L.F.P. Inc., 860 F.2d 890 (9th Cir. 1988); Jewell v. NYP Holdings, Inc. 23 F.Supp.2d 348 (S.D.N.Y. 1998); Seelig v. Infinity Broadcasting, 97 Cal. App. 4th 798 (2002); Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 53 (1988).

[2] See Communications Decency Act § 230

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