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Privileges: When Defamation is Legal


Most of us are aware of, and try to be careful of, committing defamation. And if we say anything critical or questionable, it isn’t uncommon to be threatened with defamation. But is there any time when defamation is OK? Are there situations where you can write or say something false, and be protected from liability?

Privileges and Defenses

It turns out there is. These are called privileges, not to be confused with actual defenses to defamation.

A defense is a denial; you are saying that the other side cannot prove that you met the elements or requirements of defamation. Some typical and common defenses may be that you never made the statement you are alleged to have made, or that the statement you made, was actually true.

But privilege is something different. With privilege, you are saying “I may have made a defamatory statement, but I was allowed to do that in this situation.” And it turns out there are times when you can, in fact, say or write something defamatory—so long as you do so in good faith, and without malice or intent to harm someone.

A Duty or Right to Say Something

Imagine that next door, you heard a woman screaming, you heard crying, and a man yelling, and lots of banging. You call 911 and say “I think the man next door is beating his wife.” It later turns out, you were wrong.

You made the report in good faith, and public policy favors people making these kinds of statements—People who call 911 shouldn’t have to first verify that what they are reporting is 100% accurate, otherwise people would be afraid to call 911, and we want people to call 911 when necessary.

The same may go for reporting a neighbor’s violation of a city ordinance, or reporting that you believe your employer may be stealing.

Note that it matters who you are speaking to. In our example above, telling a 911 operator of the belief about abuse is legal; putting the same information on social media may well get you sued for defamation.

Any type of news reporting is protected—even if you are just a social media page, or a message board. So long as the information is for the dissemination of newsworthy information which has value to the general public, what you say is privileged.

There is even protection for job references, to some extent. So long as you have a good faith belief and grounds to say something negative, you generally cannot get sued for what you put in a reference letter—again, so long as you are not just acting recklessly, or with malice.

People in the Public Eye

No matter who you are, you can say things about public figures, again, so long as you aren’t doing so recklessly or maliciously. Public figures aren’t just movie stars or sports athletes—they include anybody who may be in the public eye, or anybody whose activities or actions may be considered newsworthy to the general public.

Call our Fort Lauderdale business lawyers at Sweeney Law P.A. at 954-440-3993 today for help with your business law questions.


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