Libel

Reviewed by Stefan Tirschler

Noun

li·bel | ˈlaɪbəl

Definition: The publication of false information about another party that harms that party’s reputation.

He wanted to sue the newspaper for libel after they published several untrue statements about him.

What is libel?

Libel is a type of defamation.

Defamation refers to the action of damaging the reputation of someone other than yourself. Specifically, the definition of libel is defamation that takes the form of physical material like writing, pictures, drawings, and so forth.

Libel is a crime in Canada. However, it’s not the sort that’s likely to get you arrested and tossed in jail. For someone to be found guilty of libel, the person whose reputation was harmed by libellous material would have to pursue a legal case against the person (or group) who created the material.

If the legal process decides that it was in fact libel, the originator of said libel could be made to pay damages to the victim.

Example

Tamara owns a local coffee shop and roastery. One day, she’s shocked to see in the morning paper an article claiming her café uses budget coffee from the grocery store. She has no idea where the reporter got their information, but it’s most certainly untrue; she takes her product sourcing very seriously and only buys top-quality beans and roasts them in-house.

Nevertheless, Tamara notices an immediate drop in the number of customers to her store. She insists the newspaper issue a retraction, but the reporter is sticking to their guns. Tamara decides she has no choice but to take legal action against the paper and their libellous article.

In this example, Tamara has a pretty good case to win a libel suit against the newspaper. They published something that was untrue, and it harmed her café’s reputation.

What constitutes libel?

Determining whether any given material constitutes libel is actually pretty straightforward. There are three conditions that must be met in order for something to be considered libel:

  1. The material is both defamatory and false. This means the material harms the victim’s reputation in the mind of a typical person. It also means the harmful statements must be untrue.

  2. The material specifically refers to the victim. Anyone who sees the material must be able to see a clear connection to the victim, whether that’s a person, a business, or some other specific entity. Basically, you can’t sue someone for libel if they write something defamatory about (for example) skateboarders, even if you’re a skateboarder yourself—it would have to refer to you directly.

  3. The material has to be communicated to someone other than the victim. This means you can’t sue someone for libel if they say mean things to you in a one-to-one email—the material has to be available to a third party or the general public.

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What’s the difference between libel and slander?

There are many forms of defamation, but the two most common forms are libel and its cousin: slander. Libel refers to defamation in the form of physical materials, whereas slander is defamation that’s been spoken aloud.

Theoretically, libel is more permanent than slander. A written statement can exist forever, while a spoken statement disappears into the ether. Accordingly, punishment for libel is often harsher than for slander.

However, the libel/slander distinction has become less important over time. The invention of electronic media like radio, television, and particularly the internet has blurred the lines between libel and slander. In fact, some Canadian provinces no longer bother distinguishing between the two; libel and slander are both just “defamation.”

Is there insurance for libel?

Most common insurance policies don’t offer coverage for libel. That’s particularly true for the types of insurance that most people have—home, auto, life, and so forth. While most home insurance policies in Canada do offer coverage for liability, most specifically exclude libel cases from that coverage. (Even though “liable” and “libel” sound like the same word, they’re completely different things.)

Some people purchase umbrella liability insurance polices, which are meant to offer extra coverage over and above the liability coverage included in typical home/auto/life insurance polices. Some umbrella polices might respond to cover the costs of defending you if you’re falsely accused of libel but wouldn’t be of any help if said libel was found to be intentional.

Certain businesses might also invest in insurance coverage for libel suits, especially media companies that are likely to face accusations of libel at some point or another.

The important points

  • Libel is a type of defamation that takes the form of physical materials like writing or images.

  • To be considered libellous, material must be false, clearly reference an individual, and be available to a third party or the general public.

  • There is insurance available for libel, but it’s typically excluded from the most common forms of insurance in Canada.

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