Are There Extra-Sensitive Categories of Defamatory Statements?

POSTED ON May 8, 2018 / IN Documentary Toolkit


Neil J. Rosini

Certain types of statements are said to be “defamatory on their face,” meaning that the plaintiff doesn’t have to demonstrate that they injured his or her reputation in order to win a lawsuit.  Filmmakers should take extra care to identify these statements and corroborate them adequately.  Here are eight especially sensitive categories of statements “defamatory on their face.”

Statements that

  1. Impute to another a serious contagious disease – the sort that people want to avoid (like sexually transmitted diseases).
  2. Accuse another of serious sexual misconduct.
  3. Impugn another’s honesty or integrity.
  4. Accuse another of committing a crime, or of being arrested or indicted.
  5. Allege racial, ethnic or religious bigotry.
  6. Impugn another’s financial health or credit‑worthiness.
  7. Accuse another of associating with criminals or other unsavory characters.
  8. Assert incompetence or lack of ability in one’s trade, business, profession or office.

Statements imputing a seriously contagious disease are easy to identify.  Accusations of sexual misconduct are also plain enough but not everyone recognizes their risk.  Some believe that in these sexually liberated times, the defamatory sting has been neutralized.  Don’t count on it.  At the very least, a statement imputing adultery or even premarital sex is likely to go to a jury to determine its effect on the relevant community.

Statements that impugn honesty or integrity or allege arrest or indictment are usually apparent.  But statements that allege criminal activity can be less obvious than one might think.  There are many crimes in the book.

Allegations of bigotry, financial instability, and unsavory social companions are on the easy-to-see side of the line.  But injuring others in their trade, business or profession is a deceptively broad category.  For example, a high school football coach sued a daily newspaper that assailed him for verbally abusing his players from the sidelines with exhortations like “Come on, get your head out of your &@!(#.”  The coach successfully argued that the description of the abusive, vulgar and profane language attributed to him was false and defamatory and cast doubt on his “fitness for his profession.”

Adapted from The Practical Guide to Libel Law, by Neil Rosini

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