When is gossip more than gossip? That is a tough question to answer, as the facts and circumstances are individually determined. In the information age, gossip spreads faster and farther than in previous generations. What can seem an innocent comment may subject someone to liability, especially in the workplace. Current law has always had to balance between free speech and the protection of others from comments that harm their reputations.
Any type of gossip creating liability would likely fall under the area of defamation. Defamation is a general term for any communication that is intended to harm the reputation of another. There are two types: libel and slander. Libel is defamation in written form. This also includes anything written on the internet, not just the traditional forms of publication. Slander is verbal defamation.
The elements of defamation are the same whether it is slander or libel:
- A statement was made- As mentioned above, the communicated statement can be oral or written.
- The statement must be published- This means that the statement needs to have been communicated to a third party in some way, whether written or oral. Note that the third person should not be connected to the statement.
- The statement caused injury- An injury is not what is traditionally thought of as a physical or psychological harm. The injury alleged would be an injury to the reputation of another. For example, if the statement caused someone to lose business, that lost money can be sought in a claim.
- The statement was false- The injured party must prove that the statement was false. For defamation actions, truth is an absolute defense, so if the party that made the statement can prove the truth of the statement, the court will determine that there is no injury and a party cannot recover.
- No privileged communications- A final consideration is that the statements should not be privileged. There are certain instances where defamatory statements are immune from suit. A common example is a statement made in court during testimony. Statements to police are another example.
Public figures have a higher burden to prove defamation. For them malice, or an intent to cause harm to a public figure’s reputation, must be proven. This means that speech about a public figure, like a celebrity is more protected as long as intentional harm is not intended. So gossip away about those celebrity relationships!
Statements that are opinions will not subject one to liability so it is important to note when the statement communicated is an opinion or a fact.
This article is for general informational purposes only and is not to be construed as legal advice. Do not rely on the above information as all cases are different and different laws apply to different cases. Consult an attorney in your area for further guidance.