Four Elements of Libel

In order for you to have committed libel, the plaintiff in the case against you will have to prove that four conditions have been met:

  • The statement is false.

  • The statement has a defamatory meaning.

  • The allegedly injured party is clearly identified in the statement.

  • The statement has been published.

If all four conditions are not met, an action for libel will not prevail. Therefore, you must be familiar with these four elements and what a plaintiff must do in order to prove they have been satisfied.

Proving Libel

Because the statement must be false, truth is an absolute defense to libel. However, unless the plaintiff is a celebrity or public official, the burden of proof generally lies with the author to establish the material is true. Since the statement must possess a defamatory meaning, the plaintiff must prove that what is written has caused or is likely to cause harm to his reputation.

The third element of libel requires that the plaintiff is identifiable. It is not necessary that the plaintiff be named for this condition to be met so long as the party would be identifiable by someone who knows or knows of the plaintiff. For instance, returning to the preceding examples, a statement in the local paper read by community residents that refers to the owner of the auto repair shop at Third Avenue and Main Street would identify Franklin Thompson for libel purposes without actually naming him.

The fourth and final element to establish libel is satisfied if the statement has been published and read by a third party. Publication occurs when the work is printed in the traditional manner such as books, magazines, and newspapers or if it appears over the Internet. It can also be satisfied by a letter to a third party, the distribution or posting of flyers, or e-mails.

It is not necessary to prove that a third party read the statement so long as it is reasonable to assume this is the case. For example, if the statement appears in a newspaper, the condition will have been fulfilled without the need to parade witnesses to testify they read the article in the paper.

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