Nasty Words in New Jersey: When to Sue for Defamation?
From social media to corporate boardrooms and the political arena, it’s a fact of life that people sometimes talk about other people in unkind and damaging ways. But when do statements rise to the level of defamation and become subject to litigation by the defamed party?
A first consideration is around public versus private individuals. “Public” includes anyone within the hierarchy of government with responsibility. But this can also include attorneys working on cases affecting the public interest, as well as officials and candidates for such things as condominium boards. All other people are private individuals, to whom slightly different rules apply.
That established, four things need to be proved in court in a defamation case: A false statement was made about a person or entity, the statement was made to a third or more parties, the statement was negligent (about a private individual) or malicious (about a public individual), and damages occurred as a result of the statement. “Damages” typically involves monetary losses tied to reputation.
Three important privileges and defenses of defamation law in New Jersey apply:
Substantial truth (or untruths) – Any statements made about one individual or entity, such as a company, by another has to be demonstrably false. If it is true, there is no case.
Fair report privilege – Information that is in public documents or statements previously made by public officials can be repeated if that information is appropriately credited to those documents or individuals. For example, if sworn testimony in a divorce case reveals unsavory details about an individual and those court records are publicly accessible, those details can be discussed.
Opinion and fair comment privileges – The First Amendment of the Constitution allows free speech, which includes stating one’s opinion about another. But when that opinion is wrapped around a specific falsehood – “I think the school principal is a pedophile” – it is not fair privilege.
If you feel your reputation is impacted in a way that can have further, particularly monetary, repercussions you should contact a defamation attorney to discuss your case.