Have you ever hit the send button only to wish you could unsend the message? Sometime's embarrassing, other times you lose a friend. But what about those people with nothing better and miserable enough in life that adding insulting comments to online news stories has become a hobby? What can you legally do about suing them when they attempt to ruin your reputation?
I get quite a few questions from potential clients asking about the law and how it can be used as a weapon against someone who has written something dastardly on Facebook or some comment on a local news website. Today's question is one such question.
Question: Can I sue someone for defamation of character if a person wrote a statement about me on a public discussion?
Question Detail: The person said I have a drug house and that I sell drugs. All of this is absolutely false.
Answer: Yes you can sue, in fact anyone can sue, but winning is another thing altogether. Defamation of character is difficult to prove with few exceptions and every case is individually different. Whenever I find myself saying this to people it usually means you need to sit down with a lawyer and have him/her review the facts of your defamation claim. That’s because lawyers need to know a lot more facts than this detailed question provides. Without more facts no legal opinion on an actionable claim can be expressed. But let us look at it in a very general way.
To prove libel, slander or what we generally refer to as defamation of character you will need to prove a false statement, about a person, that puts them in a bad light publically and that is published to a lot of folks. There is more to proviing a case of defamation, but these are the basic elements. So let me lightly touch on each element.
First can you prove who wrote the statement? Many people make comments online under pseudonyms, fake names and from far away places. Who actually typed the actionable words? People may deny it was them claiming someone else must have had access to their computer.
Second, I assume you can prove it is false. Falsehoods that are just a little false or that express an opinion are generally not actionable. Everyone has the right to an opinion and opinions unless they express a “fact” aren’t actionable. You’ve not provided the text, the words, the sentence, the phrase or the paragraph published about you. What you have done is provide a conclusion of what you understand the person wrote about your household. But what you understood those words to mean isn’t as important as how many different ways they can be interpreted by the general public. Are you overly sensitive? Is there more than one meaning? How many people commented interpreting the writer’s words as you understood them? We need to read the actual comment about your house being a drug lair.
Third, can you prove the statement was published? I believe you can based on what you've said; but published to what degree. Websites have statistics showing how many people visited them and in particular how many users read the article. If only five people read the article and only 2 formed an opinion about the truth of what was being said about your home and neither of them know you, then have you been defamed?
Fourth, can you prove who read the statements? And if you can then how has your character actually been damaged? Do you have other things online that are worse? In other words how will you prove your good name and character have been altered and damaged? Do you have any criminal history that has already disparaged your name? Everyone has access to Iowa Courts Online.
It takes a lifetime to build a good reputation and only minutes to destroy it. Attorney, Steve Lombardi
People need to think about what they are writing and consider how it might affect another person's reputation. Perhaps the old adage do unto others as you would have them do unto you, is appropriate to consider before hitting the send button.
Good luck with your claim and you have a legal question write to attorney Steve Lombardi at his email address.
Here is Robert Todd on YouTube and his instructional video is a good general description.