Can a text message be libelous? It depends.
First Things First, What Is The Definition of Defamation?
Before we get into “text message libel” specifics, let’s talk about what constitutes defamation – in general.
The Main Elements of Defamation
State laws vary slightly, but they all adhere to the following federal standard:
- Publication – The material at hand must have been publicly published in some manner.
- Harm – The material at hand must have caused the plaintiff material harm of some kind.
- Fault – The material at hand must have been published, at the very least, negligently; meaning the defendant didn’t do proper due diligence in finding out the truth before spreading a false statement of fact.
The Difference Between Slander and Libel
There are two main categories of defamation: slander and libel. Generally speaking, slander is spoken defamation, and libel is written defamation.
Opinion v. Defamation
Under United States law, opinion is not defamation. Anybody can talk trash about anybody else – what you can’t do is spread lies about people.
Can a person or media outlet be sued over a minor inaccuracy (i.e., reporting a business embezzled $1.5 million when in reality it only swindled $1 million)? In 99% of cases, no. Why not? Because of a legal standard called “substantial truth.” If a statement is mostly correct – and the inaccuracy doesn’t have a significant impact on the reader’s or listener’s overall understanding of a story — then substantial truth applies, and the defendant usually wins.
Defamation is when one party makes an unprivileged false statement of fact about another party. Unprivileged means that the person dishing the didn’t have a legitimate right to “pass on” the information. For example, conversations between clients and lawyers are protected; as such (and only generally speaking), a defamation lawsuit couldn’t be launched around a private conversation between a lawyer and client.
Generally Speaking, When Is A Text Message NOT Considered Defamatory?
- If an SMS message is only the nasty opinion of one person, it’s not text message defamation. We’re legally allowed to voice negative opinions.
- If a text message was sent to only one person, and did not cause the plaintiff material harm, it’s not defamatory.
- If the statement is true, nine-and-a-half times out of ten the courts won’t consider it defamatory; but you may have a valid “publication of private facts” claim.
Generally Speaking, When Can A Text Message Be Deemed Defamatory?
- If a false statement of fact is sent to a text message group, the text message could be deemed defamatory.
- If the false statement of fact sent via text causes the subject material harm, it could be deemed defamatory (again, assuming that the other elements of libel are adequately argued).
NOTE: In order for a statement to be legally defamatory it must satisfy all the elements of defamation (see above). For example, it’s possible that a false statement of fact could be sent via text message, but not deemed defamatory because it didn’t cause harm. Moreover, defamation law has lots of caveats – like privilege, substantial truth, etc. – which can ultimately determine the outcome of a case. It’s best to consult a defamation attorney about the particulars of your situation to find out if you have a viable case.
Speak With An SMS / Text Message Defamation Lawyer
Are you dealing with an online libel headache? Kelly / Warner has helped many people and businesses make their “digital defamation” woes disappear. Whether you need help with text message defamation or other types of online libel – we’re here to help.