Defamation is the general term for a legal claim involving injury to one's reputation caused by a false statement of fact and includes both libel (defamation in written or fixed form) and slander (spoken defamation). The crux of a defamation claim is falsity. Truthful statements that harm another's reputation will not create liability for defamation (although they may open you up to other forms of liability if the information you publish is of a personal or highly private nature).

Defamation in the United States is governed by state law. While the U.S. Constitution sets some limits on what states can do in the context of free speech, the specific elements of a defamation claim can -- and often do -- vary from state to state. Accordingly, you should consult your state's law in the State Law: Defamation section of this guide for specific information.

Generally speaking, a person who brings a defamation lawsuit must prove the following:

The defendant published the statement. In other words, that the defendant uttered or distributed it to at least one person other than the plaintiff. You don’t need to be a media mogul to be a publisher. There is no requirement that the statement be distributed broadly, to a large group, or even to the general public. If you publish something on the Internet, you can assume that this requirement has been met.

The statement is about the plaintiff. The statement need not name the person explicitly if there is enough identifying information that those who know the person will recognize the statement as being about him or her. For more information, see the section on Who Can Sue For Defamation.

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