A claim for defamation arises when there has been publication of untrue allegations to third parties which name or identify the claimant and which has caused, or is likely to cause, serious harm to their reputation. Establishing the meaning of the words complained about is always the first step. Generally, libel is the written word – although it includes TV, radio broadcasts and publications on the internet – while slander is the spoken word, and can, in certain circumstances, include non-verbal gestures or actions.
A body trading for profit does not have ‘feelings’ so to prove serious harm has been suffered, it needs to show it has sustained, or is likely to sustain, serious financial loss as a result of the allegations. The position in relation to non-trading corporations is that they too have a reputation which the law protects. Therefore, a charity, although it does not trade for profit, can sue in respect of a statement which may discourage donors or subscribers, or otherwise impair its ability to carry out its charitable objectives.
Educational institutions are especially vulnerable to potential reputation management issues. Students or parents make allegations about members of staff; students make allegations about each other. Staff sometimes make allegations about other colleagues. And, of course, the media sometimes publishes allegations about conduct within schools or universities or the staff or students within them. Meanwhile, there is always the tinnitus-like background noise of social media which is virtually impossible to control unless one has unlimited resources.
So, what should you do before publishing material to third parties? And if you or your organisation find yourself at the centre of a media storm, how can you help to stop it raining (or at least put up an umbrella)?
Time is always of the essence so seeking prompt specialist advice can help to avert or dilute the potential reputational damage. Legal fees are always a distress purchase, but significant money and management time can be saved if a sensible specialist is involved at an early stage.
Prevention is better than cure
You cannot easily control what other people choose to say or publish about each other, but you can take some simple steps to reduce the prospect of you or your organisation publishing something defamatory:
- Inform your staff of the legal risks and consequences associated with failing to carefully consider what is published online or elsewhere. Publish in haste and repent at leisure!
- Fact-check any statement relating to any individual or organisation which you publish. Truth is a complete defence to a claim for libel – but the burden of proof is on the party who makes the statement.
- Consider in particular the meaning of …….