Guide to Laws about Reputation and Defamation
This is a guide to the laws about harm to a person’s reputation, which in “legalese” is known as defamation. In general, speech, which can mean speaking, writing, or even artistic expression, is strongly protected by the 1st amendment of the U.S. Constitution. See our Guide to Free Speech for more on this.
However, defamation is an exception to free speech. That is, in general you do not have the right to say or write false & negative things about a person or company. A person whose reputation is significantly harmed by this can sue for monetary compensation.
Can I sue someone for saying something bad about me?
Possibly. This could fall under defamation or portrayal in a false light (or both).
Defamation is defined as publishing or saying false things that harm a person’s reputation. It can be either spoken (called slander) or written (called libel). If you are able to prove that someone’s writing or speech about you was untrue AND that it damaged your reputation, (and you are not a public figure – see below), you may be able to successfully sue them for monetary compensation.
However, if someone says or writes true things about you, you cannot successfully sue for defamation. But it may be a violation of privacy (see below).
If you happen to be a “public figure” and someone says or writes false things about you, you can only sue (successfully) for defamation if the writer/speaker knew the information was false AND intended to harm your reputation.1NYT v Sullivan
But here is a recent example of a reporter and magazine that were found liable for defamation.
Portrayal in False Light
You have a right to protection against publicity that places you in a false light, even if this does not amount to defamation. This is one of the rights of privacy.
What if someone is saying embarrassing things about me?
If someone is publishing or saying true but private things about you, this may be considered an “invasion of privacy.”
Talk to a “personal injury” or “civil litigation” lawyer about defamation.