Primary Defenses A Journalist Can Use In A Libel Suit

Defamation Demand Letters Primary Defenses A Journalist Can Use In A Libel Suit

Discover the Three Primary Defenses a Journalist Can Use in A Libel Suit

Journalism is a complex field — it prioritizes the truth, over reputations, feelings, and impressions. As such, U.S. law regulates the concept of what journalism entails and the freedom of the press. In all American regions, defamation has substantial financial consequences for any offender. A false statement that causes financial, reputational, physical, or emotional harm to another person is classified as defamation.

In order to begin proceeding with a defamation case, you must establish which of the two types of defamatory statements have been put up against you — slander or libel. Slander occurs when defamation is spoken and harmful, whereas libel happens when those harmful statements are in writing or an otherwise solidified format.

To prevent further damages, once defamatory statements have been made, it is advised to file a “cease and desist” letter, instructing the individual that you will proceed with legal action if they keep issuing false statements. Below, you will find all of the information you need for pursuing a defamation lawsuit as a journalist.

How Does Defamation Interact With Journalism, Exactly?

To sue for defamation, it is of utmost importance to determine the extent of the defamation and its form. There are several prime characteristics that classify a statement as defamatory, as outlined below:

Slander or Libel?

  • Slander and libel are the two classifications of defamation in general American state law.
    • Libel claims include statements that are permanent. This means they can be in the form of a broadcast, article, letter, email, or blog post that has incurred damages and created harm.
    • Slander claims typically do not require a permanent record of any kind. Slanderous claims, therefore, can be as simple as a form of speech or gesture — incurring serious harm
  • To prove a case of defamation, embarking on this is the first step that you must take. To preface, you can continue by sending a cease and desist letter to the offender.

What is Not Defamation?

Defamation and journalism interact intricately. This is a complicated subject, and it is far more difficult to prove a case than it may seem at first. Here are several limitations on defamation that may disqualify your case:

1. Expressions of Free Speech

  • Under American Law, the First Amendment covers all individuals against defamatory statements that cause harm to their character
  • The First Amendment also protects the right to free speech creating a grey area that makes defamation difficult, especially for journalists
  • While defamation is not illegal in its capacitation, it is established moral protection that prevents falsehoods known as defamation — thus, if you are a journalist, you are thereby protected
  • If someone else’s expression of free speech has caused you financial, reputational, or personal harm, you can sue for defamation of character as a civilian

2. False Light Clause

  • A false light claim comes to fruition when a statement is made that is apparently, at face value, a statement of fact, but is actually untruthful
  • The false light clause guards an individual against the specific kinds of statements that act to cause emotional or mental harm to the victim who is being defamed, as opposed to preserving their reputational or financial harms

3. Disparagement

  • Disparagement exists as protection of financial and economic abilities for the defamed individual. The protections extend towards the individuals’ patents and products owned as well
  • In general, any disparagement clause is used to protect specifically financial business interests, without regard to the personal interests that are generally protected under defamation law

4. Expressions of Opinion

  • Typically, any opinion statements cannot be considered defamation, as definitionally, statements of opinion are not provably true or false
  • There is one exception; if a statement of opinion is made out to be a statement of fact and it is further published to cause malignant harm to the individual, then it may be eligible for defamation litigation in a court of law

Journalism and Defamation

In 1964, the Supreme Court defended the fact that the freedom of speech protections in the First Amendment restricts the capacity of American public officials to sue for defamation. If a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit is a public figure or is in the process of running for office, they must prove the typical elements of defamation in addition to the burden of “actual malice”. These were intended protections to guard members of the public or press who are making assumptions from being subjected to lawsuits.

Establishing Proof of Malice — New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

  • This case was brought by L. B. Sullivan, a police officer who was enraged by a New York Times full-page advertisement that was referenced and authored by supporters of Martin Luther King Jr.
  • The ad supposedly incorrectly portrayed the number of times Dr. King had been arrested and portrayed the police in a verbatim “aggressive and incorrect manner”
  • Sullivan won the case in Alabama, the New York Times appealed the verdict and the Supreme Court voted unanimously on the fact that the Alabama court’s ruling violated the First Amendment — supporting the freedom of the press and journalists
  • The Supreme Court extended the decision’s legal standard for defamation to “all public figures” — setting an immensely high burden of proof

What is Actual Malice?

  • Actual malice is a broad term that can be demonstrated in a plethora of ways, as long as the claim is given in a court of law through evidence-based arguments
  • Many circumstances of interaction can be shown in court, including threats, defamatory statements, evidence proving the existence of a rivalry, ill will, or hostility between parties
  • All evidence that shows a reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights on behalf of the defendant is typically admissible in court as a defense
  • With respect to public officials and government actors, they must bear the burden of proving that a defendant acted against them with actual malice — throughout a trial that presents clear and convincing evidence 

To Prove Actual Malice:

You must first validate the fact that the defendant could: 

  1. Have known the implications of and that the statement was false
  2. Have acted with reckless disregard for the statement’s truth or false, disregarding the individual’s integrity

Who Has To Prove Actual Malice?

Legally, a public figure can be separated into three groups; public officials, public figures, and limited-purpose public figures. 

Public Officials 
  • Politicians
  • High-ranking government figures
  • Government employees who are responsible for governmental affairs
  • Sometimes includes government-employed civil servants
Public Figures
  • All-purpose figures, or private individuals who have persuasive power and influence
    • Elite professional athletes
    • Movie stars
    • Heads of major corporations
Limited-Purpose Public Figures 
  • Limited purpose figures, or individuals who are at the forefront of controversies to influence the resolution of a conflict and/or issue, or those who’ve distinguished themselves in a specific field
    • Other NBA/major league players who are lesser-known
    • Activists
    • Academics

Freedom of Press Laws

When considering defamation law, the law consists of three main facets of defense that pertain to defamation laws, locally and federally. These are:

Absolute Privilege or Qualified Privilege

  • Both of these defenses exempt a “speaker” from liability that pertains to publicly defaming another individual
  • Absolute privilege pertains to largely public officials
  • Qualified Privilege refers to comments made where an individual has specific experience in the industry but does not inherently guarantee immunity for reporters
  • Ex. Public Speakers and Officials with governmental duties can insulate themselves from prosecution on the job, with the inclusion of legal repercussions

Fair Comments

  • Comments made that were perceived to be truthful and aren’t necessarily slanderous with relation to the reporting interest of a journalist

Responsible Communication on Public Importance

  • If the public deserves to know about a situation concerning the capacitation or ability of someone who is in the public eye, reporters can use this defense against any cases

Filing A Cease and Desist Letter

If you fall under this criteria and are able to establish a defense — you are able to file a cease and desist letter against the defendant and/or protect yourself from incurring outrageous legal fees as a journalist. Oftentimes, these letters are expensive, difficult to draft, and can incur exponential legal fees. As an easy solution to this, discover how DoNotPay can draft any cease and desist letter for you, instantly! 

Let DoNotPay Draft a Cease and Desist Letter in Minutes!

DoNotPay is an easy, trustworthy, and streamlined solution! The Cease and Desist letter DoNotPay drafts will detail the information about the case, demand retraction, warn against future statements, and will order that the accused abides by local state statutes.

All you need to do is:

1. Search Defamation on DoNotPay.


2. Tell us about your situation:

    • Were the statements slander or libel?
    • What were the statements?
    • Why are they false or misleading?
    • What consequences have you suffered as a result of these statements?


3. Based on your location, DoNotPay will immediately generate a formal demand letter on your behalf, with the most relevant state legislation regarding defamation.

That’s it! You can expect a precisely drafted cease and desist letter to your cause, in an instant, with the inclusion of any retraction demands! 

What Else Can DoNotPay Do?

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