Defamation is the communication or issuance of a false statement about another person that causes that person harm. The false statement must have been made to a third party, referred to as a publication, although it need not be in print. To qualify as a defamatory statement, the false statement must touch upon one of four areas. It must:
- attack the person’s professional standing or character
- claim that the person is infected with a sexually transmitted disease
- state that the individual, if unmarried, is unchaste or unclean
- assert that the person has committed a crime of moral turpitude
The individual must also demonstrate that he or she suffered damage as a result.
Defenses to defamation are largely similar in most states. If the truth of the allegations is proven, it is an absolute defense. Also, some jurisdictions permit the issuer of the statement to apologize before an action can be instituted. A statement of opinion as opposed to a statement of fact may not be actionable either.
For public figures, and this would include anyone considered a celebrity, they must also prove that the statement was made with “actual malice,” meaning that the issuer knew the statement to be false or said it with reckless disregard to its truth.
Celebrities have also been sued for defamation. A defamation action was brought against Oprah Winfrey by Nomvuyo Mzamane, the former headmistress of Winfrey’s School for Girls in South Africa, when it was revealed that a matron at the school had been arrested and charged with sexual abuse. Ms. Mzamane claimed that Ms. Winfrey made comments that implied that she knew of the abuse and did nothing about it. After her contract at the school was not renewed, Ms. Mzamane had difficulty finding work. Ms. Winfrey maintained she was merely voicing her opinion, but after a judge refused to dismiss the claim, she settled with Ms. Mzamane in 2010 for an undisclosed amount.
In a landmark defamation case for celebrities, Carol Burnett successfully sued the National Enquirer in 1981 for libel when it wrote in a 1976 article that she had appeared drunk in public with Henry Kissinger. Although the paper did issue a retraction that year, Ms. Burnett prevailed. An appeals court ruled that the paper was not a “newspaper” under California law and thus its retraction did not protect it. The paper later revised its reporting policies.