Libel: Definition and Meaning

Defamation that is written or broadcast is known as libel. When someone uses their words to harm another person's image or impair their capacity for employment, this is referred to as defamation. Libelous individuals may be punished civilly and, in the past, criminally.

Along with obscenity and fighting terms, libel was once thought to fall under the First Amendment's exclusionary speech protections in the United States. Over the course of the 20th century, this began to alter as court rulings started to favor free speech over the shield of those who had been harmed by hypothetically defamatory speech.

Meaning of Libel

Libel is the act of making a statement about a person that is untrue and poses a risk to their image and/or way of life, whether it is done in writing or through broadcasting on radio, television, or the internet. Libel is regarded as a civil error (tort), and as such, it may be the subject of legal action.

The allegedly offensive remark must be factual rather than subjective. Although this is typically a strong defense, it does not mean that someone is protected from the possibility of engaging in libelous behavior by simply saying, "I think." For instance, even though the phrase "I think Sam murdered their spouse" was legally framed as a belief, the person who wrote and published it could still be held liable for libel. In reality, this expression suggests that the person had a good reason to think the statement was true.

State-specific libel laws vary, but generally speaking, in order to establish that a remark is libelous, one must persuade the court that

  • There was a published false remark.

  • It was damaging to one's image or potentially damaging to one's reputation when that statement was made.

  • No privilege or exemption applies to the remark.

Factors Important to Libel

These are −

  • There must be a false statement stated.

  • A defamatory statement is one that truly damages the reputation of the target rather than just being insulting.

  • The false statement must have been made public somewhere, coming to the attention of individuals other than the target of the statement.

  • Additionally, when perusing such statements, the general public ought to be able to relate them to the plaintiff.

Examples of Libel

Libel can happen in a variety of circumstances. Here are a few instances of libel −

If a reporter publishes a story falsely alleging that the CEO of a company has defrauded shareholders, it could harm the CEO's image and cause investors to sell their company stock, which would hurt the company. Lies were spread about the CEO and the business.

If a cartoon of a person stealing from a corner store is created and published by an artist, (and that individual is not a shoplifter). The character might come across as a thief to viewers due to the cartoon.


The statements' veracity, lack of factual accuracy, or legal privilege are the main defenses to a defamation claim, even though the burden of proof lies with the plaintiff on many of these issues. Privilege may apply to some defamatory statements, which means that under some conditions, the public's interest in learning about the statement exceeds the public interest in maintaining the integrity of the speaker.

For instance, most, if not all, jurisdictions acknowledge a privilege for truthful reports of what is said, done, or published during official or judicial processes, as well as for reports of misconduct to the relevant parties or to those with a similar interest. (Such as within a family or an association). State-to-state differences in the nature and specifications of privileges do exist.

Is Libel a Crime?

Usually, libel is a civil issue, though it is occasionally charged as a crime that carries fines or jail time in some states. Most of those that still exist demand that the person accused of criminal libel published the allegedly false statement with the intention of hurting the other party, knowing full well that it was untrue.

Criminal libel laws encompass written statements, illustrations, cartoons, and other depictions, just like civil libel laws do. Oral comments are not covered by them. Criminal libel charges are brought by the government, usually with the belief that the offense was so heinous that the defendant's alleged lie caused public damage, in contrast to civil libel lawsuits, where one person sues another over an allegedly libelous remark.

Notable Libel Cases

New York Times Co. v Sullivan

In the well-known case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, L.B. Sullivan, an Alabama police commissioner, sued the newspaper for an advertisement placed by MLK Jr. supporters. King's supporters criticized the way police handled civil rights protesters in the advertisement. According to Sullivan, the advertisement made fraudulent claims about him and his police force. In a ruling that was subsequently supported by the Alabama Supreme Court, a state court agreed.

The New York Times then filed an appeal with the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court's judgment in 1964 after concluding that it had been made in violation of the First Amendment. The decision is significant because it sets criteria that make it more challenging for public officials to establish cases of libel. The case is significant because it foiled Southern leaders' attempts to stop media from reporting on the civil rights movement.


It is essential to comprehend the obligation that rests on his shoulders and the degree of tact with which he must exercise it. Of course, journalists are allowed to conduct their investigations however they see fit, but no right is unqualified.

This does not grant them the right to spread misinformation and interfere with someone's reputation. The need to find a balance between press freedom and the demands of responsible journalism exists because, as is often said, freedom comes with a great deal of responsibility.


Q1. What do you mean by Wrongful adoption?

Ans. In a case involving wrongful adoption, the adoptive parents of an unhealthy child are the plaintiffs. They assert that the adoption agency failed to provide them with information that would have allowed them to make an educated choice regarding the child they should adopt, such as background information, health information, or genetic information about prospective adoptees.

Q2. Define the term Wrongful dismissal?

Ans. A situation where an employee's employment contract has been terminated by their employer and the termination violates one or more of the terms of the employment contract or a statute provision or rule in employment law is known in law as wrongful dismissal, also known as wrongful termination, or wrongful discharge.

Q3. What is presumption?

Ans. In the context of law, a "presumption" is a conclusion that a person draws from a collection of facts, his or her own logic and reasoning, and the applicable laws.

Updated on: 11-Apr-2023


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