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Internet Defamation: Slander vs Libel

Slander and libel are the same thing in different forms. They are both defamation, when you “defame” someone, which means to lower the reputation of a person or business in the eyes of someone else or the general public. Slander refers to spoken defamatory statements and libel refers to defamatory statements made in print. Defamation covers both. Does it matter to you, if your reputation or business has been harmed, whether it was a speech or an article that was the source?

The internet is everywhere. Like many inventions we now take for granted, there was a period of time when it existed but it wasn’t yet practically useful for everyone. Invented in the 1960s, it only became commercially viable in the 1990s. Now, it impacts directly on all of our lives. We do business through it, maintain relationships through it, and take it for granted as never before.

This has made the distinction between slander and libel even less useful. Better, really, to use the term defamation because the form of communication has itself changed so rapidly. What do we mean by “in print” when so many newspapers are folding and so much of what we read is user-generated content posted online?

The Internet social media content is very immediate and very accessible. It comes to us through the mobile devices that we keep in our pockets and look at frequently. The accessibility and openness means that what we find online is typically less thought-out than what might have been published in a newspaper a few decades ago. It has been a bit like the Wild West and the law has tried to keep up.

Part of the change the Internet has brought is that more communication is more visible to more people. And while people may think they are anonymous when they make comments on a website, in the right circumstances their identity can be discovered. We have defamation law because we tend to think that “anonymous and unsubstantiated accusation, criticism and rumour” is unfair.[1] That kind of thing “has the potential to work great mischief in the mind of the listener, and the more widely it is circulated the more likely the damage resulting,”[2] according to law professor Robert Currie. The Internet has at the very least provided a wider platform in which defamation can occur.

Damage to one’s reputation or business from untrue comments posted online can have serious and damaging effects. It can mean fewer customers and it can mean a lost promotion. This can be devastating and ruinous.

Balanced against that, one might say, is a person’s right to say what they want, and that there is freedom of expression in this country. This is true. What someone says might be offensive or insulting but it might not be defamatory. But there are limits to free expression. Untruthfully damaging the publicly-held esteem of a person or a business is the kind of speech that is, in fact, not protected.[3] And one’s right to anonymity online also has its limits.

There is also the issue of which court to go to. In other forms of media, the area in which a radio could broadcast, for example, was clear. But with the Internet? It is global. So the question of locating where the damage occurred—and therefore which court to go to—can be complicated. These are some of the issues to be sorted out in a case of alleged defamation.

What is presented here is legal information: it is in no way intended to provide an answer to whatever specific legal issues you may be facing. Only when a lawyer can obtain all of the facts about your exact legal situation can they offer advice: and this advice is based on their training and experience. If you have legal needs, addressing them begins with a conversation.

The law firm of Robert Doran has the ability and experience to help you.

[1] Currie, Robert J., “Cross-Cutting Conflicts: Developments in the Use of Norwich Orders in Internet Defamation Cases.” T. L. Archibald & R.S. Echlin, eds., Annual Review of Civil Litigation 2016 (Toronto: Carswell, 2016), 129-161.
[2] Ibid, p. 130.
[3] Ibid, p. 130.
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