Legal Guide

5 expert advice to protect yourself from defamation

Defamation is the production of false or malicious statements or images designed to ruin the reputation of a person or business. There are laws to protect Australians against such conduct; and if it is proven that you have engaged in it, you may be forced to pay a large fine.

Defamation laws aim to balance the free dissemination of ideas and opinions with the protection of the reputation of individuals and businesses. Both of these things can co-exist in society if people recognize the true nature of free speech. The latter should never be used as a weapon to destroy a person by making it impossible for them to pursue a livelihood, nor should it be used in an unfair and mendacious manner to take down a company just for the sake of doing so.

Defamation cases have risen to an all-time high. This owes mostly to the advent and spread of the Internet and social media. Nowadays anything that anyone says online can be instantly spread to millions of users. This has led a great many people to target individuals and corporations that they personally dislike, and to make up stories about them.

The growth of the Internet has also led to the expansion of independent journalism, criticism, and opinion-making. And if you are involved in one of these fields, then you know the importance of getting the facts right before you publish. There is a difference between defamation and telling the world unpleasant things about a public figure or a large corporation or giving your opinion about the character and actions of a politician, film star, business leader, or another journalist. The latter is protected speech. However, there is always a danger that your words—especially if they are strong—can be categorized as defamation, and you can be sued as a result.

Although you may be perfectly prepared to fight a defamation suit, doing so can be an expensive and exasperating experience. It is much better to avoid this hazard if you can.

Here are 5 expert ways to protect yourself from a defamation lawsuit:

  1. Only say what you can prove

The most successful defamation suits are those which demonstrate that the respondent’s statements have no basis in fact. If you know that what you are writing will be intensely disliked by the subject of the article, then you must have verifiable evidence that what you say is true. It is irresponsible to write something based on hearsay or rumor, and it is outright reckless to simply make up a story about an individual or business.

  1. Know exactly what you are saying

Even if you have the facts to back up your claims, you must still choose your words carefully. You must make the misinterpretation of your words impossible. You must ask yourself: what will an ordinary, reasonable, and fair-minded person take my words to mean?

You can also be held responsible for quoting defamatory remarks. It will not do for you to get around personal responsibility for defamation by simply quoting the baseless and scurrilous remarks of another person. You can be sued for such a practice, and will probably lose.

  1. Use the language of opinion

There is a world of difference between statements of fact and statements of opinion. You have much more latitude when it comes to the latter. If you preface a statement with “I think”, “In my opinion”, “I reckon”, or something similar, it is a clear indication that you are making an evaluative statement, not a factual statement.

If you have been unable to verify a particular fact, then it is permissible to write “It appears” or “It seems”. However, even here you want to be careful. You cannot suggest something that could permanently damage someone’s reputation without sufficient evidence.

  1. Take particular care with allegations of criminality

You can describe a person’s or company’s actions and your opinion of them. But unless you are a lawyer, you should not make statements about the legality or illegality of them. To accuse a person of a criminal act is serious. If it turns out you are wrong, then you will be held liable.

You should also be careful about deducing what another person is thinking. It is very hard to prove what someone believes unless they say it explicitly. Of course, it is perfectly fine to deduce what a person’s position might be based on past statements and current actions. However, if you decide to go this way, you must make it clear that your deduction is based on the subject’s own words.

  1. Know who you are dealing with

Some people are more willing to sue for defamation than others. Anyone who depends on their reputation to make a living is more likely to look for ways they can bring suit against individuals who write unflattering things about them. Politicians, celebrities, and business leaders top this list. In many cases, they have good reason to be aggressive in the way they deal with these matters. People in these professions tend to be unfairly and maliciously lied about, and filing defamation suits is their only means of fighting back.

If you are putting together a rather tough and critical piece on someone, you should get a sense of their litigiousness; you should find out how often they have sued for defamation and won. This will give you an idea of the extra care you will have to take when writing the piece.

Of course, sound ethics is the most effective defense against a defamation suit. If you have the facts on your side, then your article will be able to withstand any amount of scrutiny. In some instances, individuals and organizations launch defamation suits as a means of silencing critics. They count on the fact that most people –especially independent journalists—do not have the resources to fight it out in court.

You should not be intimidated by this tactic. You should instead hire a lawyer at to get the help you need. If there are no grounds for the lawsuit, a judge will probably throw the case out.

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