What is Libel?

A non-lawyer's explanation of an issue too few first-time non-fiction publishers think about.


Libel is the publication of a false statement which injures a person's business or personal reputation.

In order to be libelous, a statement must meet these conditions:

  1. There must be some negligence on the part of the writer
  2. It must be defamatory (false and injurious to the plaintiff's reputation)
  3. It must be published (distributed to someone other than the plaintiff and defendant)
  4. It is not privileged communication*
  5. The plaintiff must be identifiable to the reader

*Privileged communication includes statements made in judicial proceedings, legislative proceedings, and private communications between you and your spouse.

More Info:

Limitations and Defense

Truth: This is a rather obvious one. If you have evidence supporting the truth of the statement you made, the plaintiff can't prove it is false.

Opinion: Another obvious one. An opinion is an opinion and can't be proven false. On the other hand, if your statement includes a defamatory fact, or implies a defamatory fact along with your opinion, you might find yourself a defendant in a libel suit. Only pure opinion is a defense against libel.

Public Persons: In NY Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that the media could freely report on the affairs of "public" people (like politicians and movie starts) unless statements are made with malice.

Statute of Limitations: One year after making a libelous statement, you can breathe easy in most states. In others, you may have to worry for two years.

The Punishment

First, the bad news: if you're the defendant in a libel suit, you must pay all your own legal fees, no matter whether you win or lose.

Secondly, in many states there are both civil and criminal penalties for libel, so along with monetary penalties imposed in a civil case, a defendant found guilty of libel may also face a jail term in some states.

Legal fees notwithstanding, libel is not cheap. Most of the damages awarded in libel cases are general or compensatory (compensation for humiliation, grief, etc.). Since there are no limits or standards to these sorts of damages, they often surpass the $1 million mark.

The good news? Libel defendants win more often than they lose.

Cases on the Web

Haynes V. Knopf - The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America
"Luther Haynes and his wife, Dorothy Haynes nee Johnson, appeal from the dismissal on the defendants' motion for summary judgment of their suit against Nicholas Lemann, the author of a highly praised, best-selling book of social and political history called The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America (1991), and Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., the book's publisher. The plaintiffs claim that the book libels Luther Haynes and invades both plaintiffs' right of privacy."

Prentice v. Roberts Rinehart Publishers - The Committee: Political Assassination in Northern Ireland
"The suit is brought by David and Albert Prentice (the "Plaintiffs"), prominent Protestant businessmen from Northern Ireland who claim that they have been falsely accused of conspiracy to commit murder, in a book written by defendant McPhilemy and published by defendant RR, namely, The Committee: Political Assassination in Northern Ireland."

Springer v. Viking Press - State of Grace
"This appeal presents us with the issue of whether a fictional depiction of a person contained in a single chapter of a novel is so closely related to plaintiff in the minds of people to whom she is known as to give rise to a cause of action in defamation. "

Armstrong v. Simon & Schuster - Den of Thieves
"This libel action arises out of the past decade of insider trading scandals and Wall Street intrigue, when the media was filled with reports of arbitrageur Ivan Boesky's stock schemes, investment banker Michael Milken's deployment of junk bonds in deals for Drexel Burnham Lambert.... By this action, plaintiff Michael F. Armstrong, a criminal defense attorney who represented individuals involved in these events, now seeks damages for an allegedly defamatory paragraph about him."


Bouvier's Legal Dictionary "Libel"
The 'Lectric Law Library Oct. 1999   <http://www.lectlaw.com/def/l032.htm>.

Hale, F. Dennis, "Common Misconceptions about Libel"
St. Louis Journalism Review Sept. 1995, P. 25-26.

Kirtley, Jane, "Trying to Make Speech a Crime"
American Journalism Review November 1996, P. 50-51.

Pressman, Steven, "Libel Law in the United States"
An Unfettered Press 1994.   <http://www.usia.gov/usa/infousa/media/unfetter/>.

Velarde, Albert J. "Libel on the Internet"
Internet Law Focus Sept. 1996   <http://brown.colossus.net/immigration/internet-lawyer.html>.

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