Recently Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have threatened to sue one another for statements made during the Republican Primary season. The threat of lawsuits between politicians makes me want to go a bit off topic.
Slander, Libel, and Defamation
First, to understand the law we need to understand the terms of art. Slander is when a person is defamed verbally. Libel is written defamation. The word defamation refers to the general tort of damaging the good reputation of someone.
To begin with, in order to defame someone, the victim must have a good reputation. For example, just about anything (truthful or not) can be told about a convicted child molester. Even if technically defamed, a child molester would not suffer greater harm to their reputation because of their status as a convicted felon.
Our next analysis is whether the person who claims to be defamed is a public figure or a private person. When a person is a private person, the standard to receive a judgment is whether their good name was damaged through the dishonest portrayal of another. If the tortious actor knows what he is saying is false or acts with reckless disregard for the truth, the victim can sue.
For public figures, like the politicians mentioned above, the standard is that the speaker must have actual malicious intent. The reason is that public figures “invite attention and comment.” Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc, 418 U.S. 323, 345 (1972). Of course, the truth is an absolute defense to a charge of defamation.
To our politician friends seeking to sue one another: poppycock.