California

Is It a Crime to Disparage Someone on the Internet?

November 28, 2021 by Sarah Edwards in California  Special Report  
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Disparagement / Defamation

Using the internet to express dissatisfaction with an individual or business has become an increasingly common practice. Social media posts, online reviews, and video-sharing sites all ensure that online content can reach a wide audience, but this sometimes comes with serious negative consequences for an individual’s reputation or business.

It’s not a crime for you to disparage a person or business online, but it can constitute a civil violation. As such, you may be subject to a legal dispute in a civil court.

To avoid being sued, social media users should understand how the law defines disparagement and defamation, along with the possible legal consequences for each.

What Is Disparagement?

In common terms, to disparage someone simply means to speak negatively about them. In a legal sense, the term “disparagement” refers to intentionally spreading discrediting information about a business, organization, or company.

When you make similar comments about an individual, the legal term is “defamation.”

What Is Defamation?

Defamation is a statement that injures an individual’s reputation. Written defamation is called “libel,” and extends to social media posts, online reviews, and even drawings or cartoons.

Spoken defamation is called “slander.” If you post video or audio recordings of yourself sharing discrediting information about another person, it can be considered a form of slander.

Regardless of the medium, defamation happens when you spread unfavorable information about an individual.

What About Opinions?

While opinions can potentially cause damage to the reputation of an individual or business, expressing an opinion is a matter of free speech, a right protected by the U.S. Constitution. The difference lies in whether your words constitute factual statements or not.

Is Defamation a Crime?

Defamation falls under the jurisdiction of civil law. There are no criminal laws prohibiting defamation. If you defame someone, you haven’t committed a crime. Instead, defamation is a “tort” or a violation of civil law.

The injured party can sue by bringing a civil case against you. In court, they will be required to present what was said, provide proof the statement is false, and prove the type and extent of the damages.

How Is Defamation Proven?

There are four key requirements for proving defamation in civil court.

The words must have been:

  • False
  • Published
  • Injurious
  • Malicious

The plaintiff must provide evidence showing that your words meet all four criteria.

1. The Statement Must Be False

It must be possible to prove that your statement is false in a court of law. This means evidence must be provided that sufficiently shows that the contested words are not just biased or inaccurate, but also that they are objectively untrue.

2. The Words Must Be Published

“Published” simply means you shared the statement with a third party. Words exchanged between two parties cannot fall under defamation law, as a third party is required to cause damage to a reputation.

Published can mean written or spoken. In the context of the internet, anything shared online counts as being published.

3. The Words Must Cause Injury

The injured party must identify the negative consequences they have faced as a result of your statement. They are responsible for showing proof in court of the manner in which the words you used directly resulted in injury or damages.

4. There Must Be Malicious Intent

The injured party must show that you intended to cause damage to their reputation. At a minimum, it must be established that you showed negligence in making the statement.

5. Outcomes Are Difficult to Predict

Meeting all four defamation requirements can be difficult and sometimes impossible. In all cases, the burden of proof falls upon the injured party. Proof of all four of the above points must be accepted by the civil court before a judgment of defamation can be awarded.

6. Legal Consequences

If a civil court determines that defamation did occur, the legal consequences are broad and determined by the type of outcome the injured party is seeking.

The affected party may simply want you to retract the defamatory material or delete it from the online platform it was posted on. More often, however, taking on the cost of a court case means that financial compensation is the goal.

7. Defamation Compensation

Typically, financial compensation for defamation should be equivalent to the amount of damage caused. You may have to pay for any economic loss that occurred. This can be proven through financial documentation like bank statements or witness testimony.

You may also be ordered to provide compensation for non-economic aspects of defamation, like mental anguish or personal distress. This is harder to prove in court, but it can be established by the testimony of a therapist or other witnesses.

The amount of money you might be ordered to pay can range widely, depending on the evidence established in court.

Defamation Can Be Costly

Making disparaging or defamatory statements online about an individual can be done with the click of a button and without a second thought. However, the legal consequences are difficult to predict. With this in mind, it’s important to be mindful of your actions when you post your opinions online.

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