I get many calls from victims of Internet defamation who want me to go to court and get an order to stop the defamation. In other words, they want a court order that stops someone from speaking or publishing statements that the victims deems to be defamatory. Is that possible?
Like most legal questions, the answer is, “it depends.”
California law is very clear that after a trial has determined that the statements being made are defamatory, the court can order the defendant to stop making those statements. The reason is that defamatory speech is not protected, so once it has been found to be defamatory, the court can order the defendant not to repeat the defamatory statements. Once the court has issued such an order, it can be enforced just like any other court order, with the court assessing sanctions and even jail time if the defendant refuses to comply.
The much tougher challenge is getting a court to order a defendant to stop defaming the victim before there has been a trial. Typically, it takes at least a year to take a matter to trial, and that may be far too long for the victim. A temporary injunction can be obtained in a matter of days, so that affords a much faster remedy if it is available.
But there is a problem. An injunction is usually issued with little or no time for the defendant to oppose it. The procedure is that the plaintiff files an ex parte application with just 24 hours notice to the other side. The plaintiff’s attorney may have taken weeks to prepare a carefully crafted application supported by any number of declarations from witnesses, but the defendant gets just 24 hours to put together an opposition. Indeed, it’s far worse, because notice must be given 24 hours in advance, but the application may not be served until just four hours before the hearing, depending on the procedure followed by a particular court. If good cause can be shown, the ex parte application can be sought with no notice to the other side. A defendant could be ordered to stop speaking before the judge has ever heard his side of the story. Is that fair? Continue reading
I don’t receive these calls very often, but they are heart wrenching when I do. I have received multiple calls over the years arising from television portrayals of deceased people. They typically arise from those “true detective” shows. An unsolved case is discussed, and the family of the prime suspect elects to point the finger at someone close to the case who has since died. A dead person is the perfect scapegoat, because he can’t defend himself.
As you can imagine, having the loving memory of a former, spouse, sibling and/or parent sullied by a false accusation of murder does not sit well with those involved. Their love-one is being defamed, and they call wanting to sue for defamation.
But consider the very basis of defamation. The damage that defamation causes is the loss of reputation AND the emotional distress that flows therefrom. We’ve all been taught not to speak ill of the dead, and no doubt it causes tremendous heartache for the family of the deceased when lies are told about him, but he isn’t here to suffer. This is why the law provides that you can’t defame the dead.
When I present this bad news to callers, inevitably it is followed up with the classic quantum of harm argument. Potential clients always look first to the harm that is being caused, and assume there must be a remedy.
“But these claims are destroying my life because now everyone thinks my deceased husband was a murderer. There must be something we can do.”
I understand this logic, and indeed it is seemingly embraced by the most fundamental of all legal maxims, “equity will not suffer a wrong to be without a remedy.”
The problem is the definition of “wrong”. If the law says that you can’t defame the dead, then the fact that you speak poorly of the dead does not make your speech defamatory, and you have thus committed no “wrong” in a legal sense. Thus, the fact that you are doing something that causes emotional distress to others does not mean that there is a basis for a legal action. Some vegans are no doubt very upset that there is so much meat being eaten around them, but they can’t sue because meat-eating is not a legal wrong. The harm suffered does not necessarily determine whether a wrong was committed.
Go here for a very interesting discussion of defaming the dead, with many historical examples.
Our neighbors to the North are very American-like, until you get to issues of free speech. Most view Canada as the “least protective of free speech in the English-speaking world.” Reasonable minds can differ on some of Canada’s laws, such as prohibiting the media from identifying criminals until they have been convicted, but most of the law is still based on policies designed to prevent any criticism of the government. Canadians can be held liable by English-Canadian courts for comments on public affairs, about public figures, which are factually true, and which are broadly believed.
A recent parody video posted on You Tube illustrates just how lacking the concept of free speech is in Canada. The video is a fake cable company ad posted by Extremely Decent Films. It does not mention any cable company by name, and indeed it is specifically directed at American cable companies. Nonetheless, someone lodged a complaint in Canada, and that was sufficient to scare You Tube into removing the video, given the vagaries of Canada’s libel laws (although the video has since been reposted in response to articles such as this one).
Trials are decided by humans with all their human experiences. Whether a judge or jury is deciding a case, your relative success will depend on the nature of those experiences, and your ability to persuade the trier of fact to set them aside when appropriate. Internet defamation cases necessarily require some understanding of the Internet by the trier of fact, or at least the willingness to absorb new concepts. Thankfully it has not happened to me in any of the cases I have handled, but I still hear horror stories about judges who make comments like, “no one really believes anything they read on this . . . In-ter-net,” or “what is this google you keep talking about?”
At least a Small Claims Judge in Canada appears to understand a thing or two about Internet defamation. In the case, the defendant took a disliking to a local dog kennel for whatever reason. She visited some animal discussion boards, and posted comments about the kennel, referring to it as a “puppy mill.” The kennel took exception to this characterization, and sued for defamation in Small Claims Court. (In one of my earliest postings, I sing the praises of suing for defamation in Small Claims Court. Take note how effective that can be.)
The court found in favor of the Plaintiff dog kennel, and awarded $14,000 in damages. The court correctly determined that calling a dog kennel a “puppy mill” is a bad thing. But what caught my eye was the simple logic of the judge, the sort of logic that sometimes eludes other judges. First he was upset that these postings were made on the Internet, recognizing that “the use of the Internet worsens the defamation.” That may seem extremely self-evident to most of us, but remember those aforesaid judges that still view that Internet as a fad among kids that will soon pass. The judge also stated that the defamation was “particularly malicious” because the purpose of the defendant was to put out of business a kennel that supported a family of 11.
Wow. A judge that recognizes that Internet defamation can be more egregious than verbal defamation, and who views the conduct from a real world perspective of how it impacts the people behind the business. Thank you Canada.
I often get calls regarding wrongful termination where the terminated employee – terminated months earlier – has done nothing to find a new job, concluding that a new job would minimize his damages and hurt his case. That’s a crazy case of the tail wagging the dog.
Lately I am receiving defamation calls where the victim of the defamation is following a similar counterintuitive strategy. The call usually goes something like this:
Caller: “The Orange County Register published an article saying I cheat on my taxes and am a bad dancer.”
Me: “Is that a false statement?”
Caller: “Entirely false. I’m an excellent dancer!”
Me: “When did they publish this article?”
Caller: “About three months ago.”
Me: “Did you ever demand a correction?”
Caller: “No, I want to sue for damages, not a retraction. If they printed a correction, that might minimize my damages.”
That mentality is problematic on several levels. First, it shows that the caller is not as interested in preserving his reputation as he is in getting money. Second, if an attorney ever did take the case, the failure to ask for a correction would be a problem for the jury. He was so upset by the defamation (the tax part, not the dancing) that he is asking us to give him millions, but he never tried to minimize the loss of reputation by asking for a correction?
Finally, California Civil Code § 48a requires someone who has been libeled by a newspaper or slandered by a radio station to demand a correction “within 20 days after knowledge of the publication or broadcast or the statements claimed to be libelous.” If a plaintiff fails to make the demand in the allotted time, he or she is limited to special damages – the actual, quantifiable damages caused by the defamation, such as loss of business. Fail to make the demand within 20 days, and you give up all general damages, which are 95% of the damages in most defamation cases.
Litigation is a solution to a problem, but it should never drive your life. Don’t act in some artificial manner to “preserve” an action. By all means, save some screen shots as evidence for your action, but if you act to keep the defamatory comments in place, that will hurt your case far more than it helps.
We can answer all your questions about defamation, but sometimes if you have a general understanding of the law, you can ask better questions about the facts of your case. Some attorneys think a defamation action is like a personal injury case, but the proof necessary for a defamation action is very different. As a nation, we put such a value on free speech that the burden is high to prove defamation.
Defamation is the inclusive term, including both slander and libel. In other words libel and slander are both defamation, but libel is printed and slander is spoken. Defamation occurs when someone makes a false, unprivileged statement about someone to a third party, which attacks the person’s professional character or standing, claims that an unmarried person is unchaste, claims the person has a sexually transmitted disease, or that the person has committed a crime of moral turpitude. Stated another way, to constitute defamation the statement must falsely accuse the plaintiff of immoral, illegal or unethical conduct. Generally, the statement must harm the reputation of the person, but in the case of per se defamation, damages will be presumed. This last point is very important, because if a plaintiff had to prove actual damage, the burden of proof in most cases would be nearly impossible.
Let’s examine each element more closely:
1. False Statement of Fact
Truth is an absolute defense to a claim for defamation. No one can prevent you from telling the truth, even if that truth harms someone else. Further, the statement of an opinion generally will not constitute defamation, since it is not offered as a statement of fact. For example, it a food critic states that a restaurant serves horrible food, that is not defamation since taste will always be an opinion. Even if the restaurant brought 100 witnesses to court to attest that the food is wonderful, the critic is still entitled to his opinion.
On the other hand, some believe that they can escape liability by casting a fact as an opinion. A number of clients have come to us for a second opinion after another attorney has told them a statement is not defamatory because it was stated as an opinion. Adding the word “opinion” to a defamatory statement does not automatically shield the speaker from liability. The determining factor is whether the “opinion” is about a verifiable fact. For example, as stated above, a food critic is protected when he offers his opinion about the food, but if he says, “in my opinion the food was horrible and the restaurant has rats,” the statement about rats is defamation (assuming it is false) because it is a verifiable fact. Similarly, “In my opinion, he cheats on his taxes” is a defamatory statement since it is the assertion of a fact, even though it is called an opinion.
There are many statutes that afford a “privilege” to someone to speak, and in those cases the person is shielded from defamation. (See Civil Code section 47.)
For example, say you are looking out your window one day, and you see someone break a window in the house across the street, and climb into the house through that broken window. Thinking a burglary is occurring, you call the police who soon arrive and drag the suspect out of the house at gun point, only to discover that the person owns the house, and had been forced to break in when he locked himself out. You’ve just made a false statement to a third party, claiming that your neighbor was breaking the law. Can you be sued for defamation?
No, because there is a statutory privilege afforded to anyone making a good-faith report to the police. There is also a very strong litigation privilege, protecting witnesses from anything they say in court or in commencement or furtherance of the action. We often get calls from people wanting to sue a witness because “he lied on the stand” or submitted a false declaration. But the court system would come to a grinding halt if witnesses could be sued for what they say, so the law shields them with a privilege (although a witness who testifies falsely can be criminally prosecuted for perjury). Many clients have trouble with this concept, especially in the context of a custody suit, because the court will appoint an evaluator and of course the parent disagrees with everything contained in the report. They want to sue the evaluator for the “lies” contained in the report. Such actions are barred in almost every case because of the litigation privilege. The solution is not to sue, but rather to introduce your own evidence to show that the evaluator is wrong.
One privilege that really surprises people is the right your former employer has to tell prospective employers what a bad employee you were. An urban legend has appeared, stating that an employer is only allowed to confirm the employment of a former employee, without offering any opinion about job performance. Quite to the contrary, California Civil Code section 47 provides that an employer may offer such an opinion and is immune from suit unless it can be shown that false information was given out of malice.
3. Statement made to a third party
No statement, no matter how false and vile, can constitute defamation if it is made only to the person that is the basis of the statement. Defamation arises from a loss of reputation. How can you lose reputation if the statement is made only to you. And if you repeat the slander or show someone the libelous statement, the speaker or publisher remains free from liability, because you are the one that “published” the statement.
4. Immoral, illegal or unethical conduct
A statement is not defamatory just because it is false, even if it arguably casts the person in a bad light. Your application to join the local bowling league is rejected, and you later find out that one of the people on the board stated you were a really bad bowler. In fact, you are an outstanding bowler. Nonetheless, it is not defamation since being a bad bowler is neither immoral, unethical or illegal.
5. Harm to reputation
Finally, even if all the elements for defamation are met, the facts can sometimes present a difficult case to prove. For example, assume that while at a party, a stranger approaches your spouse and falsely tells him or her that you are having an affair. If your spouse laughs it off, then how has there been a loss of reputation? The statement is defamatory, because it falsely accuses you of immoral conduct, but how were you damaged? If, on the other hand, your spouse storms from the party, drives home and puts all your belongings in the front yard, then what was your reputation to begin with? If your spouse was willing to believe such a statement from a stranger with no further investigation or collaboration, then he or she did not hold you in very high regard in the first place. You apparently did not lose any reputation, because it was not there to start. This is just one example of the nuances that arise in a defamation action.
What can I do?
Most attorneys think in terms of suing, and will want to run to court. At Morris & Stone, we carefully examine your goals to determine the best plan for your specific situation. We are ready and able to go to court if that is the best approach, but sometimes other approaches better fit your goal. For example, in one case our client was defamed by a newspaper. He walked around with a cloud over his head, knowing that many people had read and believed the horrible, false accusations printed about him in the paper. Even if the paper printed a retraction, it would be a little paragraph buried on page 12 that no one would read. Similarly, money damages would do nothing to restore his good reputation.
The solution? We prepared and served a complaint to apply pressure, and then negotiated a settlement that was beyond anything our client could have hoped for. In addition to paying our client damages, the paper agreed to provide four pages for our client’s use. He was free to use one page at a time over several weeks, or use all four pages at once, to publish a retraction of the things that were said about him. In other words, he was given a blank canvas to use however he wanted to clear his good name.
That was the perfect remedy for that client, and we will work to find the prefect solution for you.
Your reputation is priceless
Whether you respond with just a letter or go to a full blown lawsuit, you should never allow a defamatory statement to go unchallenged. Silence is perceived as acceptance. If you did nothing about what was being said about you, it must be true. The goal in a defamation action can be to recover damages, but often that is not the primary goal. The priceless value of a defamation action is to gain back your reputation. When someone says to you, “but didn’t I hear or read somewhere that you [fill in the blank]?”, you can answer, “yes, someone was spreading that lie, but I sued him and he was found liable for defamation and had to pay me damages.”