Publication is an essential element of any defamation claim. It exists when a communication is made to a third party (i.e., someone other than the person defamed, and other than the person making the statement). This is because the essence of libel and slander is the diminution of one’s reputation in the eyes of others. A false accusation made privately to you may be insulting, but it wouldn’t be defamatory because a statement not heard by others would not affect your reputation. But what if the false accusation is made in a setting that isn’t so private—a courtroom, for example? Could a devious tortfeasor avoid defamation liability by addressing his comments only to the plaintiff despite speaking loudly enough that third persons are likely to hear the statements?
Most Virginia cases defining publication describe a situation where a statement is made directly to a third party. (See, for example, Thalhimer Bros. v. Shaw, 156 Va. 863, 871 (1931) (defining publication as the “uttering the slanderous words to some third person so as to be heard and understood by such person”); Tomlin v. Int’l Bus. Machines Corp., 84 Va. Cir. 280 (2012) (referring to “the element of publication to a third party”)). Publication is a broader concept than these definitions suggest. The Restatement defines publication more comprehensively as communication of defamatory matter “intentionally or by a negligent act to one other than the person defamed.” The Virginia Supreme Court implicitly adopted the Restatement position in Food Lion, Inc. v. Melton, 250 Va. 144 (1995), where it held that the publication element is satisfied where, “when the defendant addressed the defamatory words to the plaintiff, another person was present, heard the words spoken, and understood the statement as referring to the plaintiff.”