Slander is the spoken or transitory form of defamation of character, a legal term that refers to a falsehood presented as true which could harm the reputation of a person or entity. Slander also encompasses body gestures as in the case of sign language. If defamation of character is placed in a fixed form, as in the case of a sign, published paper, film or recording, it is considered libel. In short, slander is temporarily uttered or gesticulated, libel is published or otherwise fixed.
Slander is a tort, or civil law, meaning a civil lawsuit can be brought against someone who is accused of slander. In the United States certain facts must be established for someone to be found guilty of slander. Assuming there is proof that the defendant uttered the alleged statement, the statement must be overheard by someone other than the subject or other “privileged” parties. Slander must also clearly identify the party or entity, and the intent must be malicious.
Winning a defamation of character lawsuit can pay off in two types of compensation: general damages and special damages. General damages covers emotional trauma while special damages covers economic loss. In the case of a slander lawsuit proof of specific special damages might be required before general damages can be awarded. Unfortunately, special damages can be hard to prove.
Some types of slander, however, are considered “slanderous per se” and are automatically awarded general damages without proof of special damages. In this case the slander must do one of the following:
- Declare the plaintiff unfit to perform his or her job adequately.
- Allege criminal behavior on the part of the plaintiff.
- Claim the plaintiff has an unsavory disease.
- Make immoral sexual claims, especially about the virtue of a female plaintiff.
The more people that are party to a falsehood, the greater the potential for harm to the plaintiff. For this reason, libel cases generally award more damages than cases of slander, as libel reaches a greater audience. With the advent of the Internet, many types instantly published, worldwide communications have become fodder for libel cases. Online libel is sometimes referred to as cyberlibel.