Summary of North Carolina Defamation Law
The Pillars of Defamation
- Falsity: Plaintiffs in NC can’t win a defamation lawsuit if they can’t prove the statement is false.
- Harm: Unless a statement is considered inherently damaging (i.e., calling someone’s professionalism into question), defamation plaintiffs must show material damage caused by the contested statement(s).
- Negligence: An utterance isn’t defamatory is the defendant didn’t act, at the very least, negligently. The required level of proof depends on case details.
The Difference Between Slander and Libel
Slander is spoken defamation; libel is written or graphic defamation.
Defamation Per Se
Under North Carolina defamation law, a statement is considered inherently libelous if it:
- Maintains that an individual is guilty of a crime;
- Claims that an individual has an infectious disease;
- Attempts to discredit a person in their profession or industry; or
- In some other way, subjects an individual to public disgrace, contempt or ridicule.
What does “inherently libelous” mean on a practical level? It means the plaintiff doesn’t have to prove harm (pillar #2 above), because it’s naturally understood.
Actual Malice & North Carolina Defamation
A public figure plaintiff who brings a defamation lawsuit is required to establish actual malice on the part of the defendant. What does that mean? In short, it means the plaintiff must provide evidence that the defendant knew the statement was false and ran with it anyway.
North Carolina defamation law allows for several defenses and privileges, such as fair reporting and fair comment, opinion, and substantial truth.
Under the law, a statement doesn’t have to be 100% accurate to be true. (Huh!?) In other words, small mistakes are typically overlooked, provided they don’t significantly affect the substance or impact of a statement.
North Carolina Defamation Defenses
Many defamation defenses can be overcome if the plaintiff proves the defendant was motivated by “actual malice.” However, this is not applicable to website operator immunity outlined in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The issue of whether actual malice supersedes the fair report privilege still needs to be clarified in North Carolina.