Defamation is charged when a person makes false statements that ruin the reputation or character of another person. The statements can be written, as in a newspaper, or spoken, as in a speech. Written statements are charged as libel; spoken statements are known as slander.
In Texas, the phrase “defamation of character” is used in these cases. To prove this charge, it must be shown that the defamer did make a false statement about the plaintiff to a third party and that the statement did have the required degree of fault. The required degree is based on who was the object of the statement: a public official, a public figure, or a private citizen. Public officials and public figures in the Texas courts include, for instance, members of law enforcement. A “limited” public official would be, for instance, a private citizen who enters a debate in a run for city council. A private citizen is someone with no public involvement in government.
Both public figures and public officials must prove there was “actual malice,” which is the phrase used in Texas law, in any defamation statement made against them. The phrase indicates that the statement or charge was made even though the defendant knew it was false and disregarded the fact that it was false. A private citizen, however, does not have to prove actual malice, only that the statements were negligent. That means “reasonable care” was not taken by the defendant to find out if the statements were false.
Texas also has a defamation charge known as “defamation per se.” It refers to some statements that anyone would or should know are likely to injure a person’s reputation. These statements include charging that someone has a sexually transmitted disease or is engaging in sexual activity outside of marriage or is a child abuser.
A change in Texas defamation law was proposed in March 2013, intended to cut out long, costly slander and libel cases in the court system. The new process has three simple steps. 1. The injured party requests the publisher or speaker to retract or remove the material. The request must be submitted within 90 days of the written or spoken offense. 2. The accused can ask for an explanation for the retraction or removal. 3. If the accused agrees to retraction or removal, it must be done in the same manner as the original. For example, if the original story ran on page 2 of the local newspaper, the retraction must do the same. Texas officials hope the shortened process will bring long litigation cases to a quicker close.
A defamation lawsuit that closed in Texas in 2012 is an example of the lengthy cases and high paybacks that sometimes result. A Texas couple filed a defamation charge three years earlier against posters on the Internet that charged them with being drug dealers and sexual deviants, among other things. In April 2012, the Texas court sided with the couple and awarded them more than $13 million.