Guide to Laws about Reputation and Defamation in the U.S.

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).

What is defamation?

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).

Note that public figures are held to a different standard. For public figures to successfully argue a claim of defamation:1NYT v Sullivan

  • Someone said or wrote false things about them
  • The writer/speaker knew the information was false AND intended to harm the public figure’s reputation. This is referred to as “actual malice”
  • The public figure’s reputation was actually damaged

Here is a recent example of a reporter and magazine that were found liable for defamation.

What is “portrayal in false light”?

Portrayal in false light, or simply “false light” or “false impression,” refers to a situation where someone unreasonably places another person in a misleading or false portrayal before the public. In other words, it involves creating an impression about an individual that is not accurate and can harm their reputation. False light occurs when information or media presents an individual in a way that distorts their true identity or character.

Elements of False Light Claims:

  • Untrue or Misleading Portrayal: The defendant’s actions create a portrayal that is misleading or untrue.
  • Public Exposure: The portrayal is made publicly, affecting the victim’s reputation.
  • Injury to Reputation: The false light portrayal harms the individual’s reputation.

Protection against portrayal in a false light is one of the rights of privacy.

What’s the difference between defamation and false light?

False light cases often overlap with defamation. Both involve the dissemination of false or misleading information. However, false light focuses on the portrayal itself, while defamation centers on false statements that harm reputation.

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.”

Further Resources

Talk to a personal injury or civil litigation lawyer about defamation.

Related Pages


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