Utah Defamation Law
Defamation is the issuance of false and harmful information about another individual, further divided into verbal defamation (slander) and written defamation (libel). Because of the complexity of balancing an individual’s right to speech with reputation rights, this area of Utah law can be very complex.
What is Defamation
In Utah, person claiming defamation must prove that:
• The information was false and unprivileged.
• In publishing the statements, the defendant acted with the “requisite degree of fault.” When applied to a private individual, this requires simple negligence, while a public figure must prove actual malice.
• The defamatory conduct of the defendant resulted in real damages to the victim.
Utah Criminal Defamation
Utah is one of the few states with a criminal defamation provision. It’s a class B misdemeanor.
Private and Public Individuals and Defamation
When considering the requisite degree of fault, a major question is whether the individual bringing suit is a public or private person. If the individual is private, then the standard to prove defamation is simple negligence. However, if the individual is a public figure, then he or she must be able to prove that the defamatory conduct occurred with actual malice. This can be a very important distinction as it’s far easier to prove negligence than it is to prove actual malice. (See sidebar for definition of actual malice.)
Politicians and actors are examples of public individuals, but it’s possible to become an “involuntary public figure.” For example, a person charged with a crime, which made news, may be required to prove actual malice in order to win a defamation suit, even though he or she did not seek to become a public figure.
Defenses Against Defamation Lawsuits in Utah
There are a number of defenses that can be used against a defamation lawsuit in Utah. Being able to prove the truth of a statement provides an absolute defense against defamation claims. However, this defense requires that the statement be something that can be objectively proven. For example, an employee cannot bring an action for defamation against a company based on the disclosure of accurate drug test results.
Secondly, opinions aren’t defamatory. However, simply calling a statement an opinion is not always sufficient to make it so legally. Under Utah law, a court may determine that a statement, even if it is phrased as an opinion, actually makes a statement of verifiable fact. An example of this would be expressing the “opinion” that an individual is a sex offender. Because his or her status as a sex offender could be easily determined.
A claim of defamation is a complex legal issue that often involves a wide variety of factors. Because of this, individuals who are either pursuing a defamation action or are defending against a defamation lawsuit should seek professional legal assistance, rather than attempting to handle this issue on their own.
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