What's the Difference Between Libel and Slander?

Libel and slander are related concepts, but they are not identical.  Find out how they’re different and why one of them is harder to prove.

Adam Freedman
3-minute read

Today’s topic: Libel versus slander   

And now, your daily dose of legalese:  This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader.  In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer.  In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.

What’s the Difference Between Libel and Slander?

Libel and slander are both legal terms that refer to communications that can hurt a person’s reputation--and they can both lead to lawsuits--but the terms are not identical.  When it comes to defending your reputation, it’s worth knowing the difference between these important legal concepts.

Origins of Slander and Libel

Slander derives from the Latin scandalum--that’s right, “scandal.” The connection is no coincidence. Historically, English and American judges subscribed to the theory that sticks and stones are more dangerous than words. In order to persuade a court to award compensation for a mere insult, it had to be something scandalous indeed.

On the Internet, messages posted to a bulletin board may constitute libel, at least according to a 2003 California Appellate Court decision.

Early slander cases were based on scurrilous accusations--like saying that a man had committed a felony, or that a woman was “unchaste.” Disease was also a popular put-down in the old days.  The 17th century fashion of accusing one’s rivals of “the pox” gave rise to lots of slander cases. Pox, you see, was a code word for syphilis.

Libel, which comes from the Latin libellus, or “little book,” came into fashion with the advent of the printing press. In the 16th century, defamatory pamphlets were known as libelli famosi, and by the 17th century, “libel” became a legal term for a written insult.

Slander is Spoken, Libel is Written

At first, a “libel” was just one example of slander.  But over time, courts began to accept the idea that putting nasty words on paper is inherently more harmful than merely speaking them. After all, documents create a permanent record that can be circulated to one’s boss or one’s in-laws.  In 1812, a British court definitively established that a claim for libel (a written insult) is legally distinct from a claim for slander (a spoken insult).


About the Author

Adam Freedman

Adam Freedman is a lawyer and a regular contributor to Point of Law and Ricochet. Freedman’s legal commentary has been featured in The New York Times, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and on Public Radio. He holds degrees from Yale, Oxford, and the University of Chicago. He is the author of The Naked Constitution (2012).

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