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

For Slander, You Have to Prove “Special Damages”

Here’s why it matters.  The victim of a mere slander has to prove that he lost money as a direct result of the slander--otherwise, he’ll lose the lawsuit. This is known as the requirement of pleading special damages.

But with libel there is no requirement to plead special damages. You can sue somebody for a written insult whether or not that insult actually cost you any money.  The upshot is that you’ll be considerably better off in court if your enemies take the time to insult you in writing. To this day, the US and other English-speaking countries maintain the distinction between libel and slander.  But two things complicate this distinction.

Some Types of Slander Don’t Require “Special Damages”

First, there are certain types of slander that are treated as though they were libel, that is, the plaintiff does not have to plead special damages. These are known as slander per se. Most categories of slander per se have archaic names, such as the accusation of a loathsome disease or the imputation of “unchastity” to a woman.

Archaic or not, slander per se remains an important legal doctrine. Recent cases have established that the term “loathsome disease” (although it originally referred to our friend “the pox”) now includes the accusation that a person has AIDS. And as recently as 1996, there was a slander lawsuit in New York based on the imputation of unchastity to a woman.

On the Internet, Is It Slander or Libel?

The other thing complicating the slander vs. libel dichotomy is modern technology.  It was easy enough to distinguish between written and spoken words in the 18th century, but what to do in the age of radio, television, and Internet? Generally, defamatory words on radio or television are classified as slander. On the Internet, however, messages posted to a bulletin board may constitute libel, at least according to a 2003 California Appellate Court decision.

Thank you for reading Legal Lad’s Quick and Dirty Tips for a More Lawful Life. 

Libel image courtesy of Shutterstock.



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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