The Catholic University of America
Of Counsel - A Bulletin on Legal Issues at CUA - August 1999



Defamation is the "publication" of a false statement of fact that harms another person's reputation. Libel is the term used for written defamation, while oral defamation is referred to as slander.

For example, saying "John is a drunken bum" or "Mary is a thief," if it isn't true, is defamation and, more specifically, slander.

If a statement does not harm the other person's reputation (for example, "Joe got an 'A' on the test") it is not defamation, even if it is false. In addition, a statement of pure opinion cannot be defamatory. For example, "I don't like John" is not defamatory. However, you cannot turn a statement of fact into an opinion simply by adding "I think" or "in my opinion" to it. "In my humble opinion, John beat up his roommate" is still defamatory, if John did not beat up his roommate. If you honestly believed that what you said was true, however, you might not be liable if it later turns out that you were wrong.

A defamatory statement is "published" whenever it is communicated to a third person. In other words, if you say "Mary is a thief" to anyone other than Mary, you have "published" that statement.

Almost anything you post or send on the Internet, except an e-mail that you send only to the person about whom you are talking, is "published" for purposes of defamation law.

A person who has been defamed can sue for damages that are caused by the publication of the defamation. In cases of certain really nasty comments, the victim does not even have to provide proof of any damages. Since defamation on the Internet could potentially reach millions of people, the damages could be quite large.

"The Golden Rule of Thumb"

If you would be upset if someone else made the same statement

about you, think carefeully before you send or post that statement

on the Internet.

links updated 8/4/08 rab