Words can hurt! - What the law says about defamatory comments
'My neighbour has been calling me all sort of names on social media, accusing me of being a thief. I applied for a job at a hardware store in the community and I didn't get it. I know it was because of the rumours that she was spreading.'
While the information provided by you is limited and would need more, I will take the opportunity to provide you with information as it relates to the very important area of law called defamation.
It is defined in common law as the publication (in any form) by one person of any statement which injures the reputation of another by exposing him to hatred, ridicule or contempt, or which tends to lower him in the esteem of right-thinking members of society. Simply put, defamation is an all-encompassing term that covers any statement written or spoken that is published that hurts or injures someone's reputation.
Prior to 2013, the laws around defamation were really guided by the Libel and Slander Act of 1851 and the Defamation Act of 1961. These acts, unfortunately, did not take into account the use of electronic communication such as text, images, sounds, or a combination of all, as a means of sharing information. To address this gap, amendments were made to the Defamation Act in 2013 allowing for claims to take into account statements made on social media.
In determining whether what your neighbour posted is defamatory, the three primary considerations for the purposes of this article are: Was the information published? Was the published information false? Was there damage to your reputation among well-thinking people? If the answers to the aforementioned questions are in the affirmative, then you may have good grounds to file a claim for defamation.
However, if the statements published are true, then your neighbour will have an absolute defence to the claim. Another defence to a claim for defamation is fair comment. What this means is that the post made was simply a comment on facts within the bounds of fairness on a matter of public interest. Another defence is innocent dissemination, which is intended to protect people such as news agents, booksellers, etc, who unwittingly publish defamatory matter without negligence on their part.
There is also the defence of qualified privilege, where the person communicating the statement has a legal, moral or social duty to make it and the recipient has a corresponding interest in receiving it.
Your enquiry outlined that your neighbour has called you all sorts of names on social media. While this is unfortunate, the law of defamation would require the specific names that you are being called, not only to cause you hurt feelings, but to be capable of injuring your reputation in the minds of right-thinking members of society. As it relates to being accused of being a thief on social media, you could have a strong case, as a thief is a criminal under the law, and is viewed negatively by society. I also note that you are of the view that because of the rumours, you did not get the job at the hardware, however, the law of defamation does not require you to show actual damage.
Although defamation is no longer a criminal offence, the Defamation Act allows you two years to bring an action against your neighbour through civil proceedings. The remedies available under the act include damages (money), correction, and in some instances, an apology.
Odane Marston is an attorney-at-law who specialises in conveyancing, administration, probate, recovery of possession, criminal litigation and divorce. He may be contacted via email Odanemarston@gmail.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.