You might have heard of the terms libel, slander, and defamation. What are the legal differences between these terms? Defamation is actually an umbrella category for statements that harm the reputation of another person or entity. Libel and slander are subcategories of defamation: libel refers to permanent (written or broadcast) defamation, while slander is temporal (spoken) defamation. In this article, we’ll break down 2 of the biggest legal differences of libel vs slander, and how this impacts companies.
|Communication method||Permanent – written or broadcast||Temporal – spoken|
|Examples of communication mediums||Newspapers, articles, blog posts, social media posts, videos, radio broadcasts, TV shows||In-person communication, talks, comments at meetings|
|Need to prove special damages?||No||Yes, with exceptions|
Difference #1. Libel is permanent, slander is temporal
You might have read before that libel is written, while slander is spoken. That’s technically incorrect. Libel covers any defamation that’s permanent, whether it’s written or spoken. Under Section 3 of Singapore’s Defamation Act, the “broadcasting of words by means of telecommunication shall be treated as publication in permanent form.” So, if someone makes a video or radio podcast and says insulting words about you, that’s actually libel, not slander.
Slander is temporal defamation that’s spoken. So this would cover rumours that are spread by word-of-mouth, insulting comments made in meetings, or verbal attacks in speeches.
The origins of separating libel from slander hail from the US and UK, which operate on common law systems just as we do. In the US, a landmark defamation was Hartman v. Winchell in 1947, which established that defamatory radio broadcasts constituted libel and not slander. Another landmark “libel vs slander” case was Shor v. Bilingsley in 1956, which ruled that defamatory remarks in a television broadcast were libelous, not slanderous.
This distinction between libel vs slander is important, because the type of evidence you’ll need to produce in a lawsuit alleging libel is different from one alleging slander. This leads us to point 2 below.
Difference #2. Special damages are assumed for libel, but not for slander
Let’s first understand what “special damages” means. Special damages are quantifiable losses that you’ve suffered as a result of the defamation. For instance, you could show that your business has lost “x” amount of sales after the alleged defamation. For individuals, you could show you lost job opportunities, causing “x” amount of lost income.
When you sue someone for libel, the lawsuit is “actionable per se”. This means the court assumes that damage has been done to you. You don’t need to prove special damages.
With slander, the lawsuit is not actionable per se. The court does not assume damage has been done to you. You must prove special damages.
There are some important exceptions to this rule, however. The Defamation Act sets out some types of slander which are considered so harmful that special damages are assumed.
You don’t have to prove special damages for slander in the following categories:
- Slander of women: Accusing or implying that a woman is unchaste or adulterous.
- Slander affecting official, professional, or business reputation: Disparaging the professional reputation of someone, or the reputation of a business.
- Slander of title: Slandering the quality of someone’s goods, or slandering someone’s right to a property.
If you’re a business owner, point 2 (slander affecting official, professional, or business reputation) is particularly important.
Not having to prove special damages makes it easier to file defamation lawsuits. It may not always be easy to show that your losses were directly connected to the alleged defamatory statement. For instance, if you run a business and lose several big contracts after the defamatory statements surface, it may be hard to prove that the statements were the primary cause. The court may decide that a multitude of other factors, like your business management, could have caused these losses – even if you know instinctively that it must be the defamatory statements harming your business.
Not having to show this greater burden of proof means you have greater ability to hold people who slander your business accountable for their words.
Can insurance protect against libel and slander?
Yes, absolutely! Professional Indemnity Insurance covers you from libel and slander lawsuits. If you accidentally make statements that end up defaming someone else, and they sue you for it, Professional Indemnity Insurance can protect you. This coverage would pay for lawyer’s fees, and damages/settlements stemming from the defamation suit against you.
Beyond libel and slander, Professional Indemnity Insurance also covers a broad range of other business lawsuits, including:
- Negligence lawsuits
- Errors & omissions lawsuits
- IP infringement lawsuits
- Patent infringement lawsuits
- Joint venture liability
- …and more
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