If the Lie Is Not Important, It’s Not Defamatory

The law doesn’t require everyone to be completely honest in all facets of their day-to-day lives. Some lies can form the basis for a legal cause of action for defamation, fraud, business conspiracy, or other claims, but not all lies justify legal action. Some lies are more harmful than others. If someone has lied about you to other people and you are considering whether to sue for defamation, ask yourself this: has your reputation really been affected? If nobody cares about the factual error, or they respond to it with a “so what?” or a shoulder shrug, there’s a good chance the misrepresentation would not be considered defamatory by a Virginia judge.

To be considered legally actionable as libel or slander, a false statement must really sting. Meaningless insults are insufficient. Minor misrepresentations that can be easily shrugged off are insufficient. False statements about you that no one (but you) considers important are not going to cut it. What the court will be looking for are statements with defamatory meaning. Statements meeting this test are those that would tend to cause a person to be shunned from civilized society. They are statements that would tend to cause people to not want to have any personal or business dealings with the subject of the statement. People who have been legitimately defamed are those who have been exposed to public scorn and contempt as a result of false information circulating about them.

Bringing a defamation lawsuit against someone because they said something about you that wasn’t true will be a complete waste of your time and money if the statement about you isn’t the sort of thing that can reasonably be expected to cause actual harm to your reputation. The plaintiff learned this the hard way in the case of Sarah Leitner v. Liberty University, Inc. The basic facts, according to the written opinion published last Friday, go something like this:

The plaintiff, Sarah Leitner, was enrolled in a doctoral program at Liberty University. Things did not go very well at her first doctoral internship site, the Naval Consolidated Brig in South Carolina. According to her lengthy complaint, she experienced a great deal of verbal harassment (to the point where she feared for her “emotional and psychological safety”), and experienced numerous difficulties dealing with her supervisors, who accused her of poor performance and put her on a remediation plan. Her complaints about the “coercive and abusive graduation-3498090_960_720-300x200atmosphere” went unaddressed, so she eventually switched to a different internship.

More problems arose and the second internship. There was a dispute with Liberty about whether the internship was authorized by the school. There was confusion about whether the internship was with Shield Ministries or Win4Life and about whether Leitner had sought to circumvent Liberty’s internship rules. This dispute lead to Leitner’s expulsion from the program.

Leitner then filed a multi-count lawsuit against Liberty University, Shield Ministries, and several individuals associated with those entities. Her defamation claim was apparently based on the following alleged statements:

  • Shield Ministries told Liberty that Leitner “represented herself as an ‘agent’ of Shield Ministries”
  • Shield Ministries told Liberty that Leitner “was speaking to a volunteer”
  • a report, “the contents of which are not known…contain[ ] one or more defamatory allegations”
  • Liberty “intentionally defamed [Leitner] through multiple injurious and/or untrue statements to other defendants as well as to others”
  • a statement made apparently in an internal Liberty University document that Leitner had “stated that she was planning to seek consultation before deciding whether to attend a meeting with faculty later that month.”
  • Liberty suggested that Leitner had previously threatened “legal action” and that she “decline[d] when asked to clarify her intentions.”

That’s it. Based on these statements, Leitner claimed her “academic and career prospects, earning potential and reputation have been severely harmed.”

Needless to say, the court disagreed and dismissed the defamation claim with prejudice. In essence, the alleged statements failed the “so what?” test. Someone asserted falsely that Leitner “was speaking to a volunteer” when she was in fact speaking to someone else? So what? Someone lied about her when they claimed she was “planning to seek consultation”? Why should anyone care about that? In other words, these statements, even if untrue, don’t sting enough to justify bringing a defamation claim in court. They’re just not that important.

“Not only do these allegations not rise to the level of ‘defamatory,’ it is difficult to discern how they are at all insulting, offensive, or inappropriate,” the court wrote. “These statements…can scarcely be understood as inappropriate or disparaging, as Plaintiff seems to characterize them. In any event, they fall well short of the standard that a defamatory statement be one which ‘tends to injure one’s reputation in the common estimation of mankind,’ or would be such as to render one ‘infamous, odious, or ridiculous.’”

In short, save your legal budget for when it really matters. If false accusations are causing serious harm to your reputation, go ahead and consult an attorney or file a lawsuit. But if the harm is all in your head, taking matters to court is not going to help.

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