Defamation of Character: Libel and Slander Law in Virginia

Under Virginia law, the necessary elements of the tort of defamation (which includes both libel and slander) are usually expressed as (1) a publication about the plaintiff, (2) of an actionable statement, (3) with the requisite intent. This sounds simple enough, but proper application of these principles is far more complicated than one would expect. This is, in part, due to the fact that the test is circular, as it begs the question of what an “actionable statement” is. It is more useful to think of Virginia law of defamation as encompassing the following eight elements: (1) a factual assertion (as opposed to an expression of opinion); (2) that is false; (3) and defamatory in nature; (4) that is about the plaintiff; (5) and made to a third party; (6) in a setting or context that isn’t privileged; (7) with the requisite degree of fault; (8) that causes actual or presumed damages (generally consisting of financial loss, loss of standing in the community, and/or emotional distress).

Element (6) refers to a defense, not an element of the plaintiff’s proof, but I’ve included it in the list to clarify that an otherwise defamatory statement made in a privileged setting will not be actionable in a court of law. Furthermore, element (8)–damages–is presumed (and need not be proven) in those situations deemed to constitute “defamation per se.”

Libel and slander will be considered “per se” defamatory if it (1) imputes the commission of a crime involving moral turpitude; (2) imputes that the person is infected with a contagious disease which would exclude the party from society; (3) imputes an unfitness to perform the duties of a job or a lack of integrity in the performance of those duties; or (4) prejudices the party in his or her profession or trade. Statements that might qualify as defamation per se include an allegation that one has acted unprofessionally, an attack on a person’s honesty and veracity, a false report of a corporations’ profit and earnings, a statement regarding a company’s inability to pay bills, and a statement suggesting a person is an incompetent businessman.

To make things more confusing, some courts use “per se” and “per quod” to distinguish between words that are defamatory on their face and words which do not appear to be defamatory, but are defamatory by implication, or that become defamatory when additional facts are made known. (When used in this sense, defamation per se refers not to the list of the four most serious categories described above, but to words defamatory on their face). Whichever definition of “per se” is used, “per quod” is the catch-all phrase that basically means “not per se.”

Hundreds of Virginia state and federal cases have struggled to apply the law of defamation in a manner consistent with the United States Constitution, as defamation cases necessarily involve a careful balancing of vital constitutional and common law rights. On the one hand, there is the First Amendment’s fundamental protection of free speech. On the other hand, there is a common law obligation not to abuse the First Amendment with unjustified attacks against the reputation and dignity of others. Defamation law attempts to accommodate these seemingly antithetical interests by providing a legal remedy for persons subjected to false and defamatory statements while limiting the range of statements considered defamatory and actionable.

The first element of any defamation claim is “publication.” Publication in this context doesn’t mean printed in a newspaper or magazine; it means simply that the communication is made to a third party (i.e., someone other than the person being defamed). Libel and slander laws are designed to protect against unwarranted attacks on reputation, measured by how others see you. If false accusations are made directly to the accused and to no one else, the person has not been defamed because his or her reputation has not suffered. Publication requires that the alleged defamatory statement be communicated to a third party “so as to be heard and understood by such person.” (See Katz v. Odin, Feldman & Pittleman, P.C., 332 F. Supp. 2d 909, 915 (E.D. Va. 2004)). It’s not necessary for a plaintiff to identify any particular person who read or heard the statement or to identify exactly what was heard or understood by any particular recipient of the communication. A plaintiff does, however, need to establish “by either direct or circumstantial evidence that the remarks were heard by a third party who understood these remarks as referring to the plaintiff in a defamatory sense.” (See Food Lion v. Melton, 250 Va. 144 (1995) (where the evidence showed defamatory words were spoken in a “very loud tone” over a 10-minute period in which passersby stopped to listen to the commotion)). Even if the defamatory words are not directed at a third person, the publication element may be satisfied if a third party is nearby, hears the words spoken, and understands the words as referring to the plaintiff.

The second element calls for an “actionable” statement. Not every unflattering or critical remark will constitute actionable defamation. Statements that are merely unflattering, annoying, irksome, or embarrassing, or that hurt the plaintiff’s feelings, without more, are said to lack “defamatory sting” and are not actionable. To be defamatory, a statement must be more than merely critical; it must “make the plaintiff appear odious, infamous, or ridiculous.” A defamatory statement is one that causes reputational harm to a plaintiff, holding the plaintiff up to scorn, ridicule, hatred, or contempt–in other words, the type of statement that would tend to deter third parties from dealing with the plaintiff. To assert a claim of defamation, a plaintiff must show that a defendant published such a statement, that it was both factual in nature and false, and that it concerns and harms the plaintiff or the plaintiff’s reputation. A plaintiff in a Virginia defamation action must plead the statement with particularity, identifying the exact words claimed to be defamatory. Failure to allege the specific words claimed to be defamatory can lead to a dismissal of the case.

Expressions of opinion are also not actionable as defamation. Statements of opinion, as opposed to assertions of fact, are deemed privileged and no matter how offensive, cannot be the subject of an action for libel or slander. This is because a statement of opinion is not an assertion of fact that can be proven false, and falsity is a required element of a defamation claim. Statements of opinion are also protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech. Distinguishing fact from opinion is not always easy. Courts need to examine whether the specific language has a precise meaning, whether the statements are capable of being proven true or false, and whether the context in which the communication was made affects the meaning of the statement.

Statements expressed in factual language but which would not be reasonably understood as an assertion of fact are not actionable. Rhetorical hyperbole, for example, is generally not interpreted literally, and therefore cannot support a defamation action. For example, defamation cases have been dismissed in Virginia where a talk show host said a government contractor had employees in Iraq who were “all over the country, killing people,” and where a newspaper article referred to a university official as the “Director of Butt Licking.” These statements were not literally true, but could not reasonably be understood as conveying actual facts. Other examples include parody, gross exaggeration, sarcasm, and irony.

Conversely, statements expressed in language suggesting mere opinion may nevertheless be treated as implied statements of fact if the statement suggests the speaker’s opinion is based on the speaker’s knowledge of undisclosed facts. Such statements may be actionable not because they convey “false opinions,” but rather because a reasonable listener or reader would infer that the speaker or writer knows certain facts, unknown to the audience, which support the opinion and are detrimental to the reputation of the person about whom the statement is made. In other words, a statement of opinion that is based on undisclosed facts is potentially actionable because it carries with it an implicit statement of those facts. A defendant can thus be held liable for defamation if he communicates to a third party a negative characterization of a person coupled with a clear but false implication that he (the speaker) is privy to facts about the person being portrayed that are unknown to the general listener.

Statements that are only partially false may not be sufficient to support a claim of libel or slander. If an allegedly defamatory statement is substantially true, it will usually be enough to defeat a defamation action. Substantial truth turns on the understanding of the reasonable listener or reader. In general, a statement is substantially true if the statement would not have a different effect on the mind of the reader from that which the complete truth would have produced. In other words, it is not necessary to demonstrate complete accuracy to defeat a charge of defamation. It is only necessary that the gist or substance of the challenged statements be true.

Celebrities, politicians, and other public figures typically have a higher burden in defamation actions than private individuals. The First Amendment requires that in defamation actions brought by public figures, the plaintiff must prove that the allegedly defamatory statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning that it was made “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Hatfill v. The New York Times Co., 532 F.3d 312, 317 (4th Cir. 2008). Where a statement on a matter of public concern expresses or reasonably implies false and defamatory facts regarding public figures or officials, those individuals must show that such statements were made with knowledge of their false implications or with reckless disregard of their truth. Private individuals usually only need to show a level of fault akin to negligence. But if the statement at issue does not make substantial danger to reputation apparent, even private plaintiffs would need to prove malice.

Virginia defamation law is vast and complex. For more information, or to discuss the application of the law to a particular set of facts, consult a defamation attorney.

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