The tort of defamation is widely misunderstood. Social media outlets like Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, which allow easy publication and dissemination of information to a wide audience, are leading to a rise in defamation lawsuits in Virginia and around the country. To be insulted by another, especially when it happens in a public forum, can be hurtful and embarrassing. Whether the insult constitutes actionable defamation under Virginia law, however, or whether it is sufficient to satisfy Virginia’s “insulting words” statute, can present some complicated issues, often implicating the United States Constitution. Relevant considerations for any lawyer examining a defamation claim include the type and context of the speech, the identity of the speaker, the identity of the plaintiff, and the existence of qualified immunity or other defenses.
In Virginia, defamation includes both libel (written defamation) and slander (spoken defamation). There is no need for clever mnemonic devices to distinguish libel from slander, because Virginia law makes no meaningful distinction between the two and speaks only of the merged tort of defamation. The essence of any defamation claim is that a defendant published a false factual statement that concerns and harms the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s reputation. While it is common to recite that “truth is a defense,” that is not technically true, as falsity is a required element of the plaintiff’s proof.
Proof of several elements is required. The defendant must know that the statement was false or must have lacked a reasonable basis for believing it to be true. Defamatory words that cause prejudice to a person in her profession are actionable as defamation “per se,” meaning that it is not necessary to prove actual injury to reputation. Expressions of opinion, however, are constitutionally protected as free speech. Therefore, mere statements of opinion cannot form the basis of a defamation lawsuit.