Chapter 3: Strategic Communication Ethics

13 Defamation

Compromising the code of ethics may have legal consequences, depending upon the situation. One of the most common ethical problems that occur in court cases is defamation. Defamation is intentional damage done to one party’s reputation by another party. Although it is not a crime, it is considered a civil suit in a court of law. Individuals or organizations with particularly high stakes attached to their reputation (for example, celebrities, public figures, renowned educators, or popular businesses) are more inclined to sue for defamation.

A recent example is the defamation cases filed by comedian Bill Cosby. In 2015, Cosby faced allegations of sexual assault from more than 50 women, resulting in civil lawsuits and criminal investigations against him. The tremendously negative effect on his reputation resulted in the rescinding of several honorary degrees he had received as well as the cancellation of reruns of his popular TV program from the 1980s and early ’90s, The Cosby Show. In response to the damages, Cosby sued some of the women for defamation, but the cases were later dismissed. The allegations continue to have an impact on Cosby’s image and legacy.

Slander and Libel

There are two categories of defamation: slander and libel. Slander is the spoken version of defamation, when something is said verbally that harms another party’s reputation. Libel is the written version of defamation, when something is published that damages a party’s reputation. Because this textbook focuses on writing, libel will be discussed in greater detail.

Libel includes both print and online publications; even social media posts can be grounds for a libel suit. In 2011, lawyer Rhonda Holmes sued her former client, punk rocker Courtney Love, over a disparaging tweet Love had sent in reference to Holmes’s work ethic. Love was the first person in history to stand trial for social media defamation; prior to her case, there was no record of someone being sued for defamation because of something posted on Twitter (Chow, 2014). Popular media dubbed the case “Twibel.” A jury acquitted Love of all charges.  Click here for more information on the case and its implication.

Winning a libel suit is difficult. Five elements have to exist in order to render a statement as libelous (Harrower, 2012):

  1. The statement was published.
  2. The statement is conveyed as a fact, not an opinion.
  3. The statement is false.
  4. The statement is identifiable with or made about the plaintiff.
  5. The statement was published with intentional negligence or malice.

The last element is particularly challenging to prove. Many libel suits are dismissed because the plaintiff fails to provide evidence for the existence of each element.

The possibility of defamation is of great concern to every strategic communication professional. Careful information gathering and rigorous fact checking are vital in order to avoid defamatory communication. Double-checking quotes and sources helps minimize the risk of publishing libelous statements.

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Defamation by Jasmine Roberts is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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