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What is Libel?

Updated on February 1, 2010

Libel, in law, is a published statement that injures the reputation of a living person, makes him an object of ridicule, contempt, or hatred, or causes him financial loss. Generally the statement must be false and in some permanent form, such as writing or a picture, and must be made known to some person other than the subject. Radio and television comments may be libelous if they are read from a written statement. Libel is similar to slander, which is defaming a person by spoken words or gestures.

The subject of a libel may sue for money damages in a civil court. Libel may be a criminal offense if the injurious statement rouses the subject of the libel to break the peace. In the United States, in most states it is an absolute defense against a libel charge to show that the statement in question is true. However, in some states, it must be shown that the statement was published without malice.

Certain forms of expression are privileged. A member of the U.S. Congress may not be sued for statements he publishes in the course of his duties. A person who in good faith answers a legitimate inquiry about someone's character or credit rating cannot be sued. A decision by the U.S. Supreme Court has held that suit cannot be brought on statements in newspapers about the conduct of public officials unless the statements are malicious.

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