Libel and Defamation

In general, you defame someone if you have made or broadcast a false statement and it has harmed their reputation.  There are three elements to a claim of defamation:  First, the statement is false; second, it was made or broadcast to a third party; third, it involves negligence on the part of the person who made or broadcasted it.

Truth is an absolute defense to any claim of defamation.

What about the First Amendment?  Statements of opinion generally don’t constitute defamation because they cannot be proven false.

You can defame someone without actually naming the person.  If it’s clear from what you say or write who you’re talking about, you can be sued.  And, you can defame someone during an interview, even if you don’t broadcast it.  If you are interviewing an employer about an employee, and ask a question alleging something about the employee that is false or fraudulent, you’ve defamed that employee.

You can be charged with defaming a corporation, but to win a lawsuit, the corporation will have to prove that your broadcast tended to prejudice the corporation in its conduct of business, or that it deterred others from dealing with the corporation.

As a reporter, you are not immune from defaming a public official.  The official can sue, but the U S Supreme Court says to win, the official will have to establish that your broadcast was made with actual malice – a legal term meaning  that you knew full well that your statement was false, or evidenced what the Court called “reckless disregard for the truth of the statement”.

You should also know what constitutes a “public figure”.  Public figures can be persons who are not government officials, but are involved intimately in the resolution of important public questions.   Public figures are subject to the same malice standards as government officials.  A person can become a public figure in two ways:  first, through general fame or notoriety, which is rare; second, by involvement in a particular public controversy.  Most entertainers do NOT have “public figure” status.

Wisconsin has a statutory right of privacy, and recognizes three types of invasion of privacy:  intrusion upon the privacy of another person in a highly offensive manner; misappropriation of a name, portrait, or picture for trade purposes; and publication of private matters in a highly offensive manner.  Unlike defamation, truth is NOT a defense to an action for invasion of privacy.  As a reporter, you should know that people have a right to reasonable privacy.  You cannot trespass on private property or secretly record someone just because you’re a reporter.