Defamation Slander & Libel: What’s the Difference & When Do They Become a Crime?

When we hear the terms ‘slander’, ‘libel’, or ‘defamation’, we are quick to assume that all these words are interchangeable synonyms for each other. However, each word is a distinct legal term.

It can take an individual years to build a good reputation for themselves, whether this is professional or personal. However, it can take just minutes to cause reputational damage—especially now that social media has the ability to spread news fast.

When this does happen, it is often difficult to determine whether it is defamation, libel, or slander and when exactly they become a criminal offence. There are many examples where this has been the case for individuals. Here we outline the key differences between these terms and when they become a crime.

Defamation, Slander, and Libel: The Difference

The one thing that all these terms have in common is the potential to ruin an individual’s reputation. Slander and libel are both types of defamation, but when it comes to the legal differences between these three terms, there are certain aspects that define these differences.

What is Defamation?

Defamation is the act of making a statement about someone in an accusatory way that has the ability to ruin their reputation. However, there is often confusion between whether something is an act of defamation or an opinion.

The statement “I think Dave is annoying” is an opinion that cannot be proven true or false, because it is simply down to opinion. But saying something like “I think Dave robbed a bank” is accusing the person (Dave, in this case) of committing a criminal act. If this statement is untrue, this could defame them.

What is Slander?

Slander is a type of defamation that is spoken orally. The key difference between a defamatory statement and a slanderous one is that defamatory statement can be made via any medium or source—whether this be spoken on television, written in a social media post or shared in a text. But with slander, this is when statements or accusations are made orally only.

What is Libel?

Libel, meanwhile, is an accusation or statement that is made in writing, whether this be a digital piece of writing such as a social media comment or a printed one in a newspaper. It is also a form of defamation.

Example Cases

Determining the outcome of a defamation case is never easy, with arguments from both sides involved to consider. Here, we look at some of the most famous cases of defamation and their outcomes.

Defamation Case: Rebel Wilson v Bauer Media

Australian actress, comedian, writer, and producer Rebel Wilson made a defamation claim against Bauer Media in 2018. Wilson claimed that after partaking in an interview with the media company, it produced articles that accused her of being a “serial liar” who had been untruthful about her pertinent personal details.

At first, Wilson won the $4.6 million claim against Bauer Media. However, by law, Wilson had to prove not only that the statements made against her were published and made specifically against her, but the statements had caused damage to her reputation and her ability to earn money. It was this final element that caused the value of her defamation claim to be lowered.

Because Rebel Wilson couldn’t prove that loss of earnings or damage to her reputation had been caused due to Bauer Media’s articles, the claim was reduced to $600,000.

Kate Winslet v Daily Mail

After the Daily Mail accused Kate Winslet of lying about her exercise regime in an article, she sued the publication for libel, claiming that the accusation was offensive and dishonest. The article also referred to her as being “the world’s most irritating actress”. Since this was nothing more than an opinion, she was unable to take legal action against this. However, for the damage caused to her reputation due to the libellous comments about her exercise routine, she was awarded £25,000 by London’s High Court.

Slander Case: Sharon Stone v Renato Calabria

After plastic surgeon Calabria said that he had given actress Sharon Stone a facelift, Stone went on to sue Calabria for making false allegations, claiming that this wasn’t true. She explained that these allegations damaged her reputation of having ‘natural beauty’ and therefore wanted to take legal action against the Beverly Hills plastic surgeon.

In the end however, Stone’s case was dismissed. Despite the terms of the settlement not being disclosed to the public, it was confirmed that Stone cannot make any other cases against Calabria on the same claims.

Defamatory statements can severely impact individuals’ reputation and ability to make an income—especially for those in the public eye. With ‘cancel culture’ being increasingly talked about across the media, defamation, slander, and libellous news continues to circulate the internet. For some people, allegations can lead to cases of unfair dismissal from their job. If this is the case, an employment tribunal may be necessary.


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