Understanding Tennessee Law of Libel and Slander

1. What is defamation?

Answer: Defamation is the making of false statements, oral or written, about another person. There are two types of defamation, libel and slander.

2. What is libel?

Answer: Libel is a form of defamation that results when a false and defamatory statement is written about a person (as opposed to spoken about a person). Libel results in injury to the person’s character or reputation. Libel does not occur just because the statement is annoying, offensive, or embarrassing to a person; the statement must reasonably hold the person up to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule. 

In order to prove libel, the plaintiff must prove that the statement was communicated to another person other than the plaintiff (called publication) knowing that the statement was false or without taking appropriate steps to determine whether the statement was true. 

The standard for libel differs if the person about whom the statement is written is a public figure. The law of who is a public figure is very complicated, but people like famous actors and national politicians are almost always considered to be public figures. It is harder for public figures to prove a libel case.

A person accused of libeling another person can defend him/herself by proving the truth of the statement.

In addition, there are several exceptions to libel law that prevent some false and defamatory statements from forming the basis of a libel action. For example, statements made in the course of a judicial proceeding that are relevant to the issues involved in the proceeding cannot form the basis of a libel action.

3. What is slander?

Answer: Slander is a form of defamation that results when a false and defamatory statement is spoken about a person (as opposed to written about a person). Slander results in injury to the person’s character or reputation. Slander does not occur just because the statement is annoying, offensive, or embarrassing to a person; the statement must reasonably hold the person up to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule. 

In order to prove slander, the plaintiff must prove that the statement was communicated to another person other than the plaintiff (called publication) knowing that the statement was false or without taking appropriate steps to determine whether the statement was true. 

The standard for slander differs if the person about whom the statement is spoken is a public figure. The law of who is a public figure is very complicated, but people like famous actors and national politicians are almost always considered to be public figures. It is harder for public figures to prove a slander case.

A person accused of slandering another person can defend him/herself by proving the truth of the statement.

In addition, there are several exceptions to slander law that prevent some false and defamatory statements from forming the basis of a slander action. For example, statements made in the course of a judicial proceeding that are relevant to the issues involved in the proceeding cannot form the basis of a slander action

4. What is the deadline for filing a lawsuit claiming libel?

Answer: A lawsuit for libel must be filed within one (1) year from the date of publication of the libelous statement (when the defamatory statement is communicated to a third person). An exception to this one-year rule applies when the plaintiff does not discover that s/he has been defamed until after the date of publication. In that case, the plaintiff has one year from the date s/he discovers the defamation to file suit.

5. What is the deadline for filing a lawsuit claiming slander?

Answer: A lawsuit for slander must be filed within six (6) months after the words are uttered. There is no exception to this rule, even if the plaintiff does not discover the slander until after the words are spoken.

6. I believe that I have been defamed. What should I do?

Answer: First, you should immediately gather any evidence that you believe supports your claim that you have been defamed and any evidence you have of who did so. For instance, if you have been defamed on Facebook or some other site on the Internet, you should print out all of the offending pages and any information you have on who wrote the defaming material.

Second, you should contact a lawyer with the evidence you have and let the lawyer explain the law of defamation to you. An experienced lawyer will be able to interview you about the event, advise you of the law, and with your help, create an action plan of what must be done next to fully investigate and fully evaluate your claim.

 © 2010, The Law Offices of John Day, P.C.

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About John A. Day

I am a fifty-three year old lawyer who is fascinated by the law of torts. I have studied the field for over twenty-nine years. I represent plaintiffs in personal injury and wrongful death cases.

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