Defamation (Libel and Slander)


In This Section:

The Basics

  • Defamation includes both libel (written defamation) and slander (spoken defamation).
  • To be defamatory, a statement must be an assertion of fact (as opposed to opinion), communicated to other people, that is capable of being proven false.
  • Defamation is not a crime, but someone who believes they were defamed can sue the person who made the allegedly false statement.
  • Statements of opinion or hyperbole are protected by the First Amendment. Also, the individual alleging defamation has to show he or she suffered harm to their reputation (e.g. loss of a job, income). If the only damage is hurt feelings, a defamation lawsuit is unlikely to be successful.

Also, It’s even harder for public figures and “limited-purpose public figures” (experts on a certain topic, like a professor who has been on television) to win a defamation case. A public figure or “limited-purpose public figure” would not only have to prove that the statement made was false, but that person making it knew or should’ve known that the statement was false when made. Statements made on matters of public concern, for example Israel’s occupation of Palestine, also receive higher First Amendment protection.

This area of law varies from state to state, but the bottom line is, bringing a defamation suit is often difficult, costly and time-consuming. There may be better strategies  to counter false statements than bringing a lawsuit. That said, if you believe you’ve been defamed or have received a ‘cease and desist’ letter alleging that you defamed someone, contact us and we can explore legal as well as non-legal options.

For more details on defamation, see Electronic Frontier Foundation’s webpage on Online Defamation Law.


Frequently Asked Questions

What if I criticize a student representative for going on an Israel lobby-sponsored tour? Could that be considered libel, slander or defamation?

See our Defamation Basics. Opinions are protected by the First Amendment. To win a case for defamation, the person suing must show that you made a false statement of fact and that he or she suffered harm to their reputation (loss of job, income, etc.) because of the statement. Stating your opposition to the actions of an individual, or expressing your view that their actions violate certain rules, is an opinion that cannot be the basis for a defamation suit against you.

What if a pro-Israel organization has made up lies about my SJP? Can I sue for defamation?

Even if the statements were defamatory, individuals cannot generally sue on behalf of a group or a class of people for defamation. However, an exception to this rule may exist for groups of 25 or fewer people. Defamation law varies from state to state, so contact us if you would like to discuss your particular case.  There may also be other less costly and risky ways of challenging such lies.

Is my college newspaper obligated to publish our response to an article that unfairly characterizes an SJP action or event?

No. Even though it’s unfair and possibly bad journalism to exclude certain perspectives, you don’t have the legal right to force your college paper to publish your voice.[1] That said, you should make a strong request to publish a response, and try to organize an editorial board meeting so that you can help them understand the issue. Sometimes, students are only exposed to the dominant media narrative and don’t understand the critical issues at stake. If they get the facts wrong, ask for a correction.  See the Student Media Handbook for more tips on how to effectively communicate your message through the media.

Responding to False Accusations in the Media
In March 2014, during a divestment campaign at the University of Michigan, the neoconservative Washington Free Beacon published an article titled “BDS Leader Posts ‘Overtly Threatening’ Photo to Facebook.”  The article shows a member of the University of Michigan’s Palestine solidarity group Students Allied for Freedom and Equality, standing in a kitchen wearing a keffiyeh and poking a pineapple with a knife.
The article quotes Israel advocate Kenneth Marcus, a leader of efforts to undermine Palestine activism on campuses, who stated that the photograph is “overtly threatening” to opponents of the divestment campaign and could contribute to the culture of fear within the University’s pro-Israel community. Marcus connected the student’s use of a pineapple to a French comedian who associated pineapple with Holocaust denial and suggested that it was the closest one can get to the sabra fruit (purportedly associated with Israel) in Michigan grocery stores. In the wake of the article, the student’s social media accounts were flooded with hateful and racist messages.
The student responded by writing a powerful op-ed in the Michigan Daily, denying these claims, and explaining how he jokingly posted the photo on Facebook before an intramural basketball game against a team of friends months before. The other team was named “Ananas,” the Arabic word for pineapple. The op-ed also explained how such politically motivated and bigoted attacks on pro-BDS students “distract from our real message — that complicity in Israel’s human rights violations has to stop — and paint us as motivated by anti-Semitism.”
Though Facebook posts such as this student’s are protected speech under the First Amendment, colleges are increasingly less tolerant of rhetoric—even when intended as a joke or general statement—which might be construed as a threat of violence.  Keep this in mind when engaging in humor or expression, or sharing images that invoke violent imagery to minimize the possibility that your intentions may be misrepresented.

[1] See Mississippi Gay Alliance v. Goudelock, 536 F.2d 1073 (5th Cir.1976), cert. denied, 430 U.S. 982 (1977); Sinn v. The Daily Nebraskan, 829 F.2d 662 (8th Cir. 1987); Leeds v. Meltz, 85 F.3d 51, 54-55 (2d Cir. 1996); Yeo v. Town of Lexington, 131 F.3d 241, 249, 251-54 (1st Cir. 1997); Associates & Aldrich Co. v. Times Mirror Co., 440 F.2d 133, 135 (9th Cir.1971) (“Even if state action were present, as in an official publication of a state-supported university, there is still the freedom to exercise subjective editorial discretion in rejecting a proffered article.”)

Disclaimer: Do not rely on these materials without first seeking the advice of an attorney about your particular situation and facts. Only a licensed attorney, reviewing your individual facts, may render legal advice. This information is provided as a public resource for information purposes only. Nothing in this resource should be taken to create an attorney-client relationship between you and Palestine Legal.