If someone makes false statements about you that damage your reputation, you may have a lawsuit for defamation in SC.
There are many factors that you must consider before filing suit for defamation, however, including:
- whether the statements were false,
- whether they were a matter of opinion or fact,
- whether you are a public figure,
- whether the subject of the statements was a matter of public concern,
- how much damage was caused by the statements, and
- whether the defendant has the means to pay a verdict.
Below, I’ll discuss these factors and what defamation means under SC law.
If your reputation or business has been hurt by someone’s defamatory statements, call the Myrtle Beach defamation lawyers at Axelrod and Associatesnow for a free initial consultation about your case.
What is Defamation in SC?
Defamation is when someone publishes (through speech or writing) false statements about you or your business that harms your reputation or your business. It doesn’t matter if the person says the words to another person or group of people or the person publishes the words on a website, in a newspaper, or in a book – if the statements are harmful and false, it is most likely defamation.
Libel is when a person writes and distributes false statements about you that damage your reputation. Examples could include:
- Newspaper articles;
- Blog posts; or
Slander is when a person says false statements about you that damage your reputation. Examples could include:
- Business associates speaking to other business associates;
- Former employers who make false statements to a prospective employer;
- Podcasts; or
- Radio interviews (note that “broadcast defamation” could be considered libel, slander, or both).
That’s what defamation is – now, how do you prove defamation in SC?
How Do I Prove Defamation in SC?
Defamation allows a person to recover damages for injury to their reputation. The elements that must be proven are:
- a false and defamatory statement was made;
- the unprivileged statement was published to a third party;
- the publisher was at fault; and
- either the statement was actionable regardless of harm or the publication of the statement caused special harm.
You can prove that the statement was made through the testimony of the witnesses who heard the statement, recordings of the statement, or written publications of the statement. You will also need to prove how the statement damaged you through witness testimony, expert testimony, bank statements or other financial documents, and your own testimony.
Although in some cases you are entitled to general damages without proof of financial harm, in other situations you may be required to prove the dollar amount of your actual damages.
Actual malice means that the person made the statement knowing it was false or with reckless disregard for whether it was true or false.
A public figure could be a public official or someone who is “pervasively involved in public affairs.” For example:
- Sheriffs or police chiefs;
- School officials; or
- Limited public figures who have “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.”
Fair Report Privilege
Any person has “the privilege to publish fair and substantially accurate reports of judicial and other governmental proceedings without incurring liability.” Walpole v. Charleston County
Under the fair report privilege, you have the right to repeat and report on facts as stated by government officials, and. when you are relying on a statement from a government official, you are not required to investigate whether the statement is truthful:
Furthermore, the publisher is not required to investigate the truth of the underlying matter. See Padgett, 278 S.C. at 33, 292 S.E.2d at 34 (“[O]ur decision in Lybrand v. The State Co. completely refutes the contention that the publisher is required to go behind the allegations contained in the public record.”); see also Reuber, 925 F.2d at 712 (“In return for frequent and timely reports on governmental activity, defamation law has traditionally stopped short of imposing extensive investigatory requirements on a news organization reporting on a governmental activity or document.”).
For example, in Walpole v. Charleston County, decided by the SC Court of Appeals last week, the Court found that statements made by a local media outlet were not defamatory when the defendant was merely repeating statements made by the School Superintendent that they were investigating claims that members of the Academic Magnet High School (AMHS) football team, as part of a ritual:
- Drew faces on watermelons;
- Smashed the watermelons;
- Made monkey sounds; and
- Named one of the watermelons “Bonds Wilson” before smashing it.
The Court notes that:
Bonds Wilson is the name of a formerly segregated African-American school that was located at the campus where AMHS is now located and was named in honor of two prominent African-American educators from Charleston.
The Court held that the statements were not defamatory against the football players or their coach because the media was only reporting what the Superintendent, a government official, had said.
Public Concern, Private Concern
The Court also found that the editorial’s accusation that the coach and students were racist was not defamatory.
The Court held that the speech in question was a matter of public concern and therefore entitled to greater First Amendment protection:
At the heart of the First Amendment’s protection is speech on matters of public concern. Snyder v. Phelps, 562 U.S. 443, 451-52 (2011). “The First Amendment reflects ‘a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.'”
Although the plaintiffs argued that it was a matter of private concern because the allegations of racism attacked their character, the Court held exactly the opposite – that it was a matter of public concern precisely because of the allegations of racism:
The School District released a press statement and held a press conference to inform the community on a matter that affected students and teachers within the district-not just at AMHS. The watermelon ritual, the School District investigation of the watermelon ritual, and Coach Walpole’s removal as head coach of the football team were subjects of great interest to the Charleston community. At the press conference, Superintendent McGinley stated the board member who brought the allegations to her attention was “concerned about the racial stereotypes” related to activities like the watermelon ritual practiced by AMHS’s football team. The board member informed Superintendent McGinley that a concerned parent witnessed the ritual and reported it to the board member. Thus, the content of Mr. Haire’s speech about these events concerned broad issues of interest to society at large-i.e., allegations of racial insensitivity. Moreover, the events reported during the press conference gained national attention from media outlets throughout the United States. Therefore, we find the circuit court did not err in finding this was a matter of public concern.
Fact or Opinion
A defamatory statement must be factual, although a defamatory statement of fact could be contained within an opinion:
“Under the First Amendment[,] there is no such thing as a false idea. However pernicious an opinion may seem, we depend for its correction not on the conscience of judges and juries but on the competition of other ideas. But there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.” Gertz v. Welch, 418 U.S. 323, 339- 40 (1974). Therefore, an expression of opinion that conveys a false and defamatory statement of fact can be actionable.
Some statements simply cannot be interpreted as stating facts, like a person’s opinion, satire, epithets, or hyperbole:
There are certain “statements that cannot ‘reasonably [be] interpreted as stating actual facts’ about an individual.” Id. at 20 (alteration in original) (quoting Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 50 (1988)). Statements such as opinion, satire, epithets, or rhetorical hyperbole cannot be the subject of liability for defamation. See id. (“This provides assurance that public debate will not suffer for lack of ‘imaginative expression’ or the ‘rhetorical hyperbole’ which has traditionally added much to the discourse of our Nation.”).
The Court in Walpole, however, found that calling someone a “racist douchebag” is not a statement of fact – it is an opinion protected by the First Amendment:
We do not find that the term “racist douchebag” can “reasonably [be] interpreted as stating actual facts” about Appellants…
Additionally, whether someone “more or less behaved like [a] racist douchebag” or whether someone condoned an act that was “racist” is susceptible to varying viewpoints and interpretations. One person may view certain behavior as disrespectful and offensive, but another person might view the same behavior as non-controversial and socially acceptable.
Other Causes of Action
If someone has made harmful, untruthful statements about you, you can sue them for defamation if we can prove the elements of defamation and if they have the means to pay a verdict.
In some cases where defamation is not a valid cause of action, you may still be able to take action to get a preliminary injunction, have the harmful statements removed from websites or other media, or you may have another cause of action such as tortious interference with a business relationship.