Words are defamatory if they tend to damage the public reputation of a person or business. A person or business is defamed if an untrue (reputation damaging) statement about them is “published” to a third party.
The law is changing rapidly in this area, with new legislation coming into effect as recently as 2014, so it is important to seek specialist advice if you believe you may have been defamed, or if you are accused of defaming someone else.
Defamation, libel and slander
Libel and slander are the two different forms of defamation. While slander can be transient, for example a message sent via an internet bulletin board, something published in more permanent form, such as a book, or a page on a website, it would constitute libel.
For a statement to be defamatory, it must generally:
- be untrue
- have caused, or be likely to cause, serious reputational harm
- refer to an identifiable legal person
- in the case of a business, involve serious financial loss
It is important to take action quickly if you have suffered defamation, as claims must be brought within a year of a defamatory statement being published.
Everyone is a publisher now that blogging and social media are in widespread use. Once a statement is posted online it is often out there for the world to see, and will be difficult, if not impossible to retract. If your website allows others to submit content, you may be found liable for publishing that material if it is defamatory.
Whether you are looking to protect your own reputation, or are a website operator wanting to manage your risks, some steps you can take to improve your position are:
- ensure that your website terms and conditions include appropriate warranties and indemnities in respect of content submitted by visitors
- put procedures in place to assess, and if necessary take down allegedly defamatory content from your website
- ensure you are familiar with the strict time limits and procedures prescribed by the law
- have a system to monitor your reputation online, so you are alerted to what is being said about you, your brand name, your directors, partners, product or service names on websites and through social media.
- Implement other, complementary brand protection measures