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Is it libel?. This material is the property of the AR Dept. of Education. It may be used and reproduced for non-profit, educational purposes only after contacting the ADE Distance Learning Center at edr. Libel is the printed or visual defamation of a person

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Is it libel?

This material is the property of the AR Dept. of Education. It may be used and reproduced for non-profit, educational purposes only after contacting the ADE Distance Learning Center at edr


Libel is the printed or visual defamation of a person

If the defamation is spoken – that is slander.


What is defamation?

When someone feels ridiculed or their reputation has been harmed


Stories, pictures, cutlines, headlines or cartoons can be libelous

Editorials & letters to the editor can be libelous


If the person’s respect, esteem or goodwill in the community is lowered

If the statement implies the person committed a crime


If the material provokes others to feel negative or derogatory towards him

If it implies the person has a disease that would make others shun him


If the person is deprived of the right to earn a living

If the statement damages a person’s credit


There are three types of libel

  • Libel per se
  • Libel per quod
  • Criminal libel

Libel per se

This means the statement alone caused injury & no additional proof is needed to show damages. It is the most serious type of libel.


John T. Smith of 2345 Main Street was arrested yesterday for robbery.

What if the robber was John T. Smith who lived at 2345 Moore Street? This story has libeled the John T. Smith of Main Street. This is Libel per se.


Libel per quod

This would be a statement that is harmless except for special circumstances that could cause damage. This is the most common form of libel & usually occurs because of a mistake that is not obvious.


For example:

It is reported that your schools’ tennis star Jared Allred won a tennis match against Justin Todd on Saturday. But the match was actually on Friday. Just based on that alone the statement does not seem libelous, but….


What if one of those athletes is a member of a religion that observes their Sabbath on Saturday which is suppose to be a day of meditation & rest? This statement is now libelous because it makes him seem as if he is not a devote member of his church. This has damaged his reputation in his church.


Another example: If a newspaper calls the Hilton Hotel a firetrap & this frightens guests away, the newspaper would face a libel suit because the circumstances damaged the hotel owners.


However, if the dangerous building was an empty warehouse whose owners do not have a business there, there is no basis for a libel suit. No damage to a reputation has occurred.


Is this statement libelous by one of the previous definitions?

John Smith is an ambulance chasing quack of a doctor?


Criminal libelThis is when a person or company publishes material that causes a riot or disturbs the peace. The suit is brought by the U.S. Government.


Any  libel  that  tends  to disturb public  peace  & order can be a criminal offense. For instance, if a popular public figure were to be libeled to the extent that riots resulted, the libel would be of a criminal nature. 

There are words that tend to lead to libelous statements. These “danger words” must be carefully examined before use.

Lawsuits can be filed against the person or newspaper committing libel. The payment is not usually in jail time, but in monetary damage – up to millions of dollars.


Case study

During the 1996 Goodwill Games in Atlanta a bomb exploded. Richard Jewell’s name was released to the media through an unnamed source. He was only a suspect & had not been charged with a crime. Is this libel?


Yes it is libel. He was only a suspect & in fact was cleared of all charges.

Jewell sued many news organizations which released his name. He won.


NBC $500,000 – agreed to pay to protect unnamed source

New York Post (cartoon) – Undisclosed. Sued for $15 million

CNN – Undisclosed amount Claims coverage was fair & accurate


Piedmont College (quote from president) – Undisclosed amount Claims to be misquoted by the Atlanta paper.

Atlanta Journal Constitution – Still pending. Printed the following quote “an individual with a bizarre employment history and aberrant personality." They still support the story.


To win a libel suit, the person must prove all of the following:

  • The reporter was negligent
  • The information was false
  • The information was printed or spoken
  • It referred to a specific person, business or product
  • The person’s reputation was damaged

For public figures, it also has to be proven the information was published intentionally, with actual malice. Private people do not have to prove actual malice.

Public figures are anyone who has put themselves in the public spotlight.



Is this statement libelous (assume the information is false)?

Grammy award winning Singer Josie Moore entered into an alcohol treatment facility.

What if the statement read:

Teacher Mike Milton entered into an alcohol treatment facility.


Photos can be libelous. At one high school, a yearbook photo of three girls had mustaches & armpit hair added. As a result, the school had to recall 500 yearbooks already printed, or the school would have had to pay thousands of dollars in restitution to the girls.


Parents of an Indiana girl filed a libel suit after students on the yearbook staff altered the caption under the girl’s picture to read “slut.”


The best defense against libel is to avoid publishing anything for which you or the school could be sued. Check facts carefully, make sure you consult more than one source & avoid publishing something maliciously. Avoid the danger words.


If you do publish something libelous, a respectful attitude & publishing a retraction will often help prevent a court case from being filed.


If you have questionable material, the best defense is double checking & referring the article to a lawyer. Students can use the Student Press Law Center (


Uh oh

Let’s say it’s too late & you are being sued for libel. What are your defenses?


Truth - This is an absolute defense. If the statement is true, then you are not guilty. The problem occurs in proving the truth. Your witness may not testify (unnamed sources) or may not be believed. Your documents may not be allowed as evidence.


Also, be careful. Your proof may be that someone said it, & you have that on tape. Attribution is not a defense. You still have to prove the statement is true.



You write “Coach Maybury said that his assistant coach plays favorites.” You have this on tape.

Is this libel?

Is this statement protected under the truth defense?


Privilege – The exception to attribution is not a defense. If the statement was said during an official judicial or legislative session, you are safe from a libel suit. The reason is the public has a large stake in knowing what goes on in a courtroom or in the legislature.



If one senator calls another senator a liar in the lobby of the state legislature & you print it, is that libel?

How about if it was on the floor of the state senate?


Fair Comment– You are free to give opinions in reviewing books, records, events, movies, etc.

This is because the medium has been put in the public’s eye & is asking for comment through sales, advertising, etc.



If you say the cookbook is poorly written because it does not include healthy items & it does - that is libel. Facts must be true.

If you just say the recipes tasted bad (your opinion) that is protected.


You also can only attack what is being reviewed & not the person behind it. You can only attack the ‘public’ part of the performance (book, music, movie).

You can not say the author is a bad writer because he is an immoral person.



You review a concert & say “the music sounded like a preschooler wrote it.” Is that libelous?

What if you say “the lead singer is a drug addict who can’t write songs”?


Admission of Error– You made a mistake, but you correct your mistake immediately. This doesn’t always work, but it can help. It shows it was not malicious (done on purpose). Often it will reduce the judgment against you. Some states allow it as a stronger defense.


Be careful of layouts in this area. For example, you have an ad for teen pregnancy, but use a photo without a model’s release. This libels her because it makes her look like she is pregnant. Immediately running a correction in the next issue will help reduce damages, but not completely erase the damages.


Are these statements libelous?

  • - Actor Misha Brown is a wife abuser.
  • The meal tasted like dog food.
  • The President is an idiot when he said the South won the Civil War. (He was in the Supreme Court when he said it.)