Libel Definition

Saying the wrong thing on behalf of clients could result in a lawsuit if you're accused of libel. But what does libel mean? We break it down. Learn more.

libel and slander

When someone actively tries to ruin another person’s reputation by sharing false information, it’s called defamation of character. You might be familiar with this—particularly because it’s an action that often results in a lawsuit. For instance, let’s say that you’re a small business owner operating in a rather quiet town. You rely on word of mouth to bring people into your business and you have a strong relationship with many of your clients. Or, you’re trying to make it in a major city! And building relationships with clients is what helps you cut through the noise.

If your services rely on creating content or relaying information on behalf of your clients, you run the risk of being accused of libel. Without realizing it, you could defame your clients, customers, or another third party, a mistake that could land in you in court with a mountain of legal fees. All because you said the wrong thing! Whether you’re a freelance journalist or you produce podcasts on behalf of a business, if they claim that you published demonstrably false info, you could be in hot water.

These are clear-cut examples of defamation of character, seeing as they result in harm to a third party’s professional or personal reputation, resulting in hardship or loss in a tangible way (like losing money, for example). There are two classes of defamation: slander and libel. In this article, we’ll focus on the latter. Let’s get started.

What Is libel?

Defamation is defined as:

“The action of damaging the good reputation of someone; slander or libel.”

Libel specifically refers to the written form of defamation that must be published or included in a publication, intended for wide consumption. In common English, it’s when someone writes something on the Internet or publishes it and this something includes false information about a person or business.

In order for a case to be considered libelous or against the law, it needs to meet two criteria.

Publication – A libelous statement surfaces when someone spreads false information about a person or business, damaging that person’s or business’s reputation. To be considered libel, there needs to be a publication of whatever malicious rumor was said. This could be a column in the newspaper, an Internet posting, a comment made on a blog, or a mass-email sent to various parties. Additionally, cartoons, artwork, and drawings can be considered libel if they clearly and actively communicate false information about a person or business.

Presented as Fact – When someone provides their opinion on a person or business, defamation enters a grey area. It’s difficult to show proof that someone committed actual defamation when they claim “I think this person might be misogynistic,” because that could be considered subjective. Thus, for it to be considered libel, this written (and published) statement needs to be presented as objective fact, one that readers would believe to be true. Someone needs to explicitly claim a lie as a true statement. For instance, “X business owner didn’t pay their employees last year and doesn’t even have a workers’ compensation policy.” If this statement was published on, say, a company’s website or in a newspaper—and it’s inherently untrue—then this would be considered a libelous statement.

That’s libel: a published lie presented as the truth.

The difference between libel and slander

At a fundamental level, both libel and slander achieve their malicious purpose; they defame a person or business. The primary difference between slander vs libel is the medium they use to do it. To that end, slander is almost always exclusive to spoken words. But what does that mean, exactly?

It means that slander is a type of defamation that occurs when someone speaks to another person. To return to our previous example, slander would occur if that upset customer went around town, telling people (in person) that the business owner is sexist. If the defamation didn’t occur in written form by the person in question and isn’t published anywhere, then the spoken matter would be considered slander.

Note: While we’ve used the individual and the business as examples, defamation can occur to an organization, product, religious body, government, and even an entire nation.

As a quick recap:

  • Libel: A written or printed statement of false information presented as fact, causing harm, damage, or loss to a party.
  • Slander: A spoken statement of false information presented as fact, causing harm, damage, or loss to a party.

How do I protect myself against libel?

When it comes to protecting yourself against libel, the issue is usually twofold. If you work in media (we’re looking at you, journalists) or if you consistently publish content that covers a wide array of topics, then you want to ensure no one ever accuses you of libel.

Additionally, as a professional, you want to be protected in case someone defames your practice and it results in lost business, revenue, or causes any type of rift in your operations and finances.

And for this—there’s insurance!

When it comes to protecting yourself in cases of libel, look for these two things in your policy:

Defense Cost Coverage – Being that the laws surrounding defamation are multilayered and extremely complex, defending a lawsuit (specific to libel) can quickly become expensive. You want to make sure that your insurance policy covers defense costs.

“Errors & Omissions” – Errors and omissions insurance (also known as an “E&O” policy) is also called professional liability insurance. It works to protect professionals when a client claims that “they did their job wrong”—that they made an error or omission. Let’s say that you’re a writer and you accidentally publish libel, then you want to ensure you’re protected for that mistake. Additionally, an editor or webmaster that publishes someone else’s libelous words could be implicated in a lawsuit (especially if there is evidence that they knew there was a strong likelihood this material would damage the third party’s reputation).

Professional Liability Insurance with Thimble

Thimble’s on a mission to make insurance simple. With our flexible, on-demand policies, we can help protect your business in the case that someone claims you were negligent or defamatory.

In today’s litigious climate and the free reign of the internet, the risk of unintentionally engaging in defamation is significantly higher than previous eras.

If you want to help protect your business against claims that you defamed your client or customer, then consider Thimble’s Professional Liability Insurance. With our pay-when-you’re-working structure, you only have to pay for your policy during the hours you’re actually working. By clicking “select a quote” or downloading the Thimble mobile app, you can have a Certificate of Insurance in your inbox (and ready to ship to your client(s)) in less than 60 seconds.

Just input some details about your services, your ZIP code, and the type of coverage you want (select from hourly, daily, or monthly policies)—then we’ll generate a quote outlining your costs immediately.

We understand the risks involved with running a business. And we understand a business is a costly endeavor. By providing affordable and flexible insurance, we can help safeguard your company should something go awry. Thimble: insurance that works when you do.

Our editorial content is intended for informational purposes only and is not written by a licensed insurance agent. Terms and conditions for rate and coverage may vary by class of business and state.

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