Jacob Howell, a student in Jon Pfeiffer’s Spring 2014 Mass Communication Law class at Pepperdine University, wrote the following essay in response to the prompt: “A reality TV star was in a club and had too much to drink. A reporter happened to be at the club at the same time and overheard the star ranting about certain minorities in the club. The star called them ‘second class citizens’ and wished the club would be stricter about who was admitted to the club. The reporter wrote a story detailing the star’s comments. Does the star have any recourse?”
Defamation is a term that refers to any statement that has damaged someone’s reputation. It is also known as slander when being spoken, and when written, it is referred to as libel. Legally speaking, defamation is not a crime; it is more like a civil wrong. The primary action that a person who has been defamed can take is to sue the one who did the defaming. Defamation laws compete with the freedom of speech that is found within the First Amendment and specific laws pertaining to defamation vary state to state.
Defamation is most frequently publicized as an issue that public figures and celebrities have to deal with rather than private citizens. And in the case of the reality TV star that had a story written about him describing his indignation about the number of minorities in the club, he would have a difficult time proving defamation to a court of law. Once the reporter wrote and published the story about the star’s comments, the star would have to bring a case together to accuse the reporter of defamation. First, the star would have to prove that the statements in the story were false. Second, he would have to prove that a third party heard or saw the statement. Third, the published piece must be of or about the plaintiff. Fourth, the plaintiff must be able to prove damages to his reputation as a result of the reporter’s story. Lastly, the star must prove the offending statement to be privileged.
With the five elements of defamation stated and in place, the plaintiff would then be at the mercy of the judge and jury. The ultimate court ruling would be contingent on the accuracy of the story in relation to what the star said that drunken night in the club. Public figures typically have a difficult time proving defamation, but if the published story was far from the truth, the star could potentially win the case and sue for defamation.
Jacob Howell graduated from Pepperdine University in April 2014 with a B.A. in Advertising.
Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.