For small business owners, reputation is everything. It’s how you acquire clients, attract investors and grow your business. And if someone publishes false statements that harm your reputation (legally called “libel”), it can ruin everything you’ve worked for.

Moreover, if you create content or relay information for a living, you are more likely to be accused of libel. Even accidentally publishing false statements about clients, customers, or a third party can land you in court with a mountain of legal fees.

Whether you’re facing claims of libel (written defamation) or slander (spoken defamation), this is a severe issue for business owners, possibly resulting in hardship and financial loss. This article will define libel and explain how you can protect yourself from these types of claims. Let’s get started.

What is the definition of libel?

Libel refers to the act of damaging a person’s reputation in a published form. Generally, a statement is libelous if it is one or more of the following:

  • False – Incorrect, fabricated, or factually inaccurate information or statements.
  • Presented as Fact – A statement is libelous if someone explicitly claims a lie is a true statement.
  • Published – Libel has to be communicated in a published form. Libel can include op-ed’s, blog posts, articles, memoirs, Tweets, cartoons, artwork and drawings.
  • Harmful – The statement has to cause harm. Typically, that means a financial loss or a loss of future income or opportunity for the person claiming to have been libeled. In many states, the claimant can also recover damages for pain and suffering.

For example, let’s say someone writes an article stating that you didn’t pay your employees for a year. Before you claim you’ve suffered libel, you first have to ask yourself if that’s a true statement. If it is, then it’s not libel.

But let’s say it’s not true. You did pay your employees last year and every year prior. The next thing to check is whether the person presented that statement as fact. Did the person say, “I bet they haven’t paid their employees for a year,” or did they say, “They haven’t paid their employees for a year”? The former is subjective, but the latter presents a falsehood as if it were true.

Finally, they have to have been published. That could mean the newspaper printed the comments, someone posted them on social media or included them in a company blog. Depending on state law, even a single email or text sent to one person can be libelous.1

TL;DR: Libel is a published lie presented as the truth.

Defamation vs libel vs. slander: What’s the difference?

Defamation is a broad term for false statements that unjustly harm someone’s reputation. Laws regarding defamation vary by state, but a person who has been defamed can generally seek civil damages from the person who made the statements.

Libel and slander are both types of defamation, and the difference between them is the form they take:

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

Either way, both libel and slander defame a person or business. For example, let’s say you have a disgruntled client who writes a blog post where she explicitly accuses you of illegal business practices. That could constitute libel because she wrote and published the accusations. However, if she used her podcast to make those accusations, you may be able to sue her for slander.

The reverse, of course, is also true. You or your business could have a defamation lawsuit on your hands if you libel or slander someone. Tweeting your frustrations about a customer can easily rise to the level of libel. Similarly, you could be slandering a competitor if you bad-mouth them in public.

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.

How do I protect myself against libel?

Protecting yourself against libel is usually twofold. On the one hand, you want to avoid committing libel, but you also want to guard against others’ libelous statements.

You can limit the risk of committing libel by taking these steps:

  • Reviewing content before you publish – Before you post anything, take a moment to review your content. Better yet? Let someone else take a look, especially if you’re angry. People often get in trouble when they let their emotions take control.
  • Avoiding statements based on assumptions – You need to be reasonably sure that the information you’re sharing is accurate.
  • Avoiding exaggeration – When you exaggerate, you open the door to someone claiming your statement is untrue.
  • Creating a publication policy – If you have employees, you need a policy outlining what is and is not acceptable content for publication.

Guarding against libel can be tricky. Generally, it requires you to be vigilant about your reputation, both online and in traditional media. If you find content in either space that you believe hurts your reputation, save it and contact your attorney. Do not contact the entity that made the statement. As tempting as that may be, you will most likely only escalate the situation.

How insurance can protect you from libel

Insurance can’t protect you from accusations of libel. It can, however, guard against the financial losses that may follow those accusations by providing your legal defense and covering settlement fees.

For most businesses, general liability insurance is the policy that covers libel, as well as other personal and advertising injuries like slander and copyright infringement. However, you may need professional liability insurance if creating or publishing content is your primary function (we’re looking at you, media professionals!).

General liability covers perils that could happen to just about any business, including accusations of libel. General liability policies typically exclude advertising injuries for anyone who works in media, advertising, publishing, or similar fields.

But lawsuits claiming that your professional services or advice caused someone financial harm are covered by professional liability insurance, also called errors and omissions insurance. With flexible policies that are easy to scale, Thimble puts you in the driver’s seat when it comes to small business insurance. Select coverage by the job, month or year and get an affordable policy in minutes — and that’s the truth!


  1. Wired. Can a Single Text Really Be Defamatory? (Yup.)