Is it Libel, or is it Slander?

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Apparently it hasn’t been a good month for sports figures.

Chris Chelios is being sued for libel:

According to a report by TSN of Canada on Tuesday, Meehan’s lawyers have issued notices of libel against Chelios and several media outlets for statements the Detroit Red Wings defenseman made last week.

and the president of the American League is being charged with slander:

Charles W. Murphy, President of the Chicago club of the National League…announced that his attorney had been directed to bring suit to-morrow against Ban Johnson, charging the American League President with slander and conspiracy.

So what’s the difference between libel and slander?

In popular usage, the words are used interchangeably in the sense of saying bad things about someone. According to legal definitions, libel is printed and slander is spoken.

The word libel came into the language from Latin libellus, “little book.” Libel with the sense of “any published or written statement likely to harm a person’s reputation” was in use in the 17th century.

The word slander also comes ultimately from a Latin word, scandalum, “cause of offense, stumbling block, temptation,” but entered English in the 13th century, from French.

This definition from wiseGEEK describes the difference between libel and slander this way:

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.

Thanks to the internet, a third term has gained currency: cyberlibel.

The law is still in flux when it comes to defamatory statements made on the web. Public figures are not likely to bring actions of libel against all the people publishing insulting cartoons or negative remarks about them, but less prominent people may have grounds to sue.

Bloggers would do well to think carefully before clicking the “Publish” button on a scathing post.

Here are some things to avoid:

…criticizing someone’s job performance.
….accusing someone of a crime.
…hinting that someone has a disgusting disease.
…accusing someone of sexual misconduct or other immorality.

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