Sticks & Stones: When Words Harm

Generally speaking, defamation is the communication of a false statement that has the tendency to create a negative image about an individual or business to someone other than the subject.  In order to prevail in a lawsuit for slander (oral defamation) or libel (written defamation), the victim must adequately identify the communication, including who said it, who heard it and when it was spoken/published.  Truth is an absolute defense and expressions of opinion are not defamatory, so a statement that reiterates facts or even characterizes the subject as a “liar” for misrepresenting the facts does not form the basis of a viable claim.  The victim must prove that he either suffered “special” damages (a specific and measurable loss), or that the words are so egregious that damages are presumed (slander per se), as in a statement that alleges a loathsome disease, charges a serious crime, injures the subject in her trade or profession, or imputes un-chastity to a woman.  The statute of limitations (the time within which one may bring a lawsuit) for defamation (slander and libel) is one (1) year.

New York’s anti-SLAPP statute (Civil Rights Law §§ 70-a and 76-a) protects people who exercise their First Amendment rights of free speech and peaceable assembly and engage in acts of public participation or petition.   It does not shield a tenant, for example, whose landlord sues for libel unless he was commenting on an “intense controversy” that would have prompted “public participation or petition.”

Courts in New York have recognized that words can do more harm than physical confrontation, but not every derogatory statement amounts to actionable defamation.