Defamation occurs when a false statement of fact is published about a person, resulting in harm to their reputation. The falsehood can be either directly stated or implied. Publication is satisfied when the false statement is repeated to at least one third-party (i.e., anyone other than the reporter and the subject). If the statement is true, or a matter of opinion, then it cannot be defamatory. Likewise, if the statement isn’t actually a reference to the plaintiff, and it couldn’t reasonably be construed as one, then it won’t be found defamatory. For news organizations specifically, a fair reporting privilege acts as an additional shield against defamation claims where the organization reports information that was originally based on government words or actions.

      It is also important to keep in mind that the level of wrongdoing required on the part of the speaker will vary depending upon the kind of person referred to in the allegedly defamatory statement. When the subject of a statement is a public official acting in the line of duty, is a celebrity, or has voluntarily thrust themselves into a controversy, then the plaintiff will have to show that the speaker acted with actual malice in order to prove defamation. Actual malice is knowing or reckless disregard for the falsity of defamatory statements (i.e., the publisher had real doubt as to the truth of the statement, but repeated it anyway). When the subject of a statement is a private citizen, then the actual malice standard is not required, though all states require at least some fault.

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Information in this guide is based on general principles of law and is intended for information purposes only; we make no claim as to the comprehensiveness or accuracy of the information. It is not offered for the purpose of providing individualized legal advice. Use of this guide does not create an attorney-client or any other relationship between the user and Carolina Week, the School of Media and Journalism or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.