Libel and Slander (Defamation)
The law of defamation in Georgia shields an individual’s reputation against communications that are untrue and derogatory. Under the law of defamation, a person may be held liable for libel or slander. A person commits the tort of libel when he falsely and maliciously defames another through a permanent form of communication such as a writing, picture, print, or sign. This defamation must tend to injure the offended person and expose him to public contempt to constitute libel. Similarly, slander consists of a false and malicious oral statement, such as stating that someone committed a crime, has a contagious disorder, or operates their business poorly. Slander may also be committed simply by uttering disparaging words about another.
The plaintiff and his attorney shoulder the burden of proving a defamation claim in Georgia. Success depends on an attorney’s ability to prove three or four elements. First, an actual false and malicious statement made against the plaintiff must be proven. Second, the plaintiff must prove that this statement was conveyed to a third party. Third, it must be proven that the defendant was at least negligent in conveying the statement. In some cases, a fourth element proving that harm was done must be satisfied. A plaintiff is usually not obligated to prove this fourth requirement when the alleged statement falsely accuses another person with a crime, asserts that another person has a contagious disorder, or is calculated to harm the person’s trade, office, or profession.
In defending a defamation suit, Georgia provides for several defenses that a defendant may use. For instance, a person is almost always justified in making a true statement. Furthermore, in situations where minor inaccuracies have been made in good faith, the court is likely to ignore those falsities so long as the overall impact or substance of the statement is not false. This is known as a “substantial truth.”
Georgia’s defamation laws also protect opinions in many cases. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution grants us a great degree of freedom to criticize others without fear of legal retribution. Opinions of others that are based on a personal belief and that cannot be proven false are generally protected from defamation suits. However, statements that imply or explicitly state defamatory facts that can be proven false are unlikely to be protected. For example, falsely and maliciously stating that someone was convicted of a crime will most likely not constitute a protected opinion, because that fact can be proven false.
Additionally, Georgia considers some statements to be privileged so as to remove them from the realm of liability; however, these privileges do not protect statements made with a malicious intent. Privileged statements include statements made to protect the interest of the speaker, comments concerning the acts of public officials, and statements made in the performance of a public, legal, or moral duty. Georgia law also protects comments made by attorneys about the circumstances of a case or on the conduct of the parties involved.
Professionals in the business world are also granted some leeway under Georgia law. A single statement that another is guilty of a mistake, impropriety, or an unprofessional act is usually not enough to hold one liable. However, if the statement accuses another of general ignorance or lack of skill, the person making the statement will more likely be held liable.
The information provided above is a very general summary of the law of defamation at the time this text was prepared. Because this analysis is subject to change depending on recent cases and legal developments, you should not rely on this summary as legal advice. As with any important legal question, you should always consult a lawyer licensed to practice in your jurisdiction. Our lawyers are licensed to practice in all state and federal courts in Georgia.