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Introduction

Defamation is a critical legal concept that deals with protecting an individual's reputation. This article explores the meaning of defamation, its essentials, and the available defenses in the context of tort law.

Meaning of Defamation

Defamation can be described as an injury to an individual's reputation. Similar to damaging someone's property, injuring a person's reputation is considered a risky endeavor. A person's reputation holds immense value, possibly more than any other form of property. Defamation occurs when there is an intentional false communication, either in written or spoken form, which harms a person's reputation, diminishes the respect or confidence in that person, or induces disparaging and negative opinions or feelings towards them.

One of the most concise definitions of defamation comes from Scrutton LJ, who referred to it as "a false statement about a man to his discredit."

Criminal and Civil Defamation

Defamation can be further categorized into two types: criminal defamation and civil defamation.

  • Criminal Defamation: This involves defaming a person by committing a criminal act. In criminal defamation cases, the liable party can be prosecuted. It is studied under the Indian Penal Code (IPC) as a criminal offense.
  • Civil Defamation: Civil defamation, on the other hand, does not involve criminal offenses. However, individuals who are victims of civil defamation have the option to seek legal compensation. It is studied as a civil wrong under the law of torts.

Libel and Slander in English Law

English law historically distinguishes between two forms of defamation: libel and slander.

  • Libel: Libel pertains to defamatory statements made in a permanent form, such as in writing, movies, or pictures. An example would be someone printing an advertisement claiming that another person is bankrupt when they are not. This falls under the category of libel.
  • Slander: Slander, conversely, involves the publication of defamatory statements in a transient form, such as spoken words or gestures. For instance, if someone questions the chastity of another person in an interview, it is considered slander.

Youssoupoff v. MGM Pictures Ltd

In the case of Youssoupoff v. MGM Pictures Ltd, the plaintiff, a princess, claimed that she could be identified with a character in the film 'Rasputin, the Mad Monk.' The film implied that she had been seduced by Rasputin due to her identification with the character. The court ruled that in a cinema film, both the photographic content and the synchronized speech could be considered libel. Defamation could include words that cause a person to be shunned or avoided, even without any moral discredit on the plaintiff's part.

Distinction between Libel and Slander

The distinction between libel and slander lies in their form and legal recognition. In English criminal law, only libel is recognized as an offense, while slander is not. However, in Indian law, both are considered criminal offenses under Sections 499 and 500 of the Indian Penal Code. Under the law of torts, slander is actionable, and libel is actionable per se.

D.P. Choudhary v. Kumari Manjulata

In the case of D.P. Choudhary v. Kumari Manjulata, a news item falsely claimed that the plaintiff had run away with someone named Kamlesh when she had actually gone to attend night classes. The news item was negligently published and caused the plaintiff significant distress. The court held that the action was defamatory, and the plaintiff was awarded damages.

Essentials of Defamation

There are three main essentials of defamation:

  • The statement must be published: Defamation involves the publication of a statement that lowers a person's estimation in the eyes of right-thinking members of society or causes them to shun or avoid that person. The standard for evaluation is that of a right-minded citizen, not a special class of individuals.
  • The statement must refer to the plaintiff: If it can be reasonably inferred that the statement refers to the plaintiff, the defendant is still liable, even if the plaintiff's identity is not explicitly mentioned.
    In Newstead v., London Express Newspapers Ltd. The defendants published an article stating that ‘Harold Newstead, a Camberwell man’ had been convicted of bigamy. The story was true of Harold Newstead, a Camberwell barman. The action for defamation was brought by another Harold Newstead, the barber. As the words were considered to be understood as referring to the plaintiff, the defendants were liable.
    The Delhi HC in Harsh Mendiratta v. Maharaj Singh said that an action for defamation was maintainable only by the person who was defamed and not by his friends or relatives.
  • Defamation must be published: For a civil action for defamation to be valid, the defamatory matter must be made known to someone other than the person being defamed.
    In the case of Mahender Ram v. Harnandan Prasad it was said when a defamatory letter is written in urdu to the plaintiff and he doesn’t know urdu, he asks a third person to read it , it is not defamation unless it was proved that at the time of writing letter defendant knew that urdu was not known to the plaintiff.

The Innuendo

Sometimes, a statement may appear innocent at first glance but has a hidden or secondary meaning that makes it defamatory. This secondary meaning, known as innuendo, must be proven to establish defamation, even when the natural and ordinary meaning is not defamatory.

No Intention to Defame Required

In some cases, intention to defame is not necessary to establish defamation, as demonstrated in the case of Morrison v. Ritchie & Co, where damages were recovered against a newspaper for an innocent mistake.

Defenses Available

There are three main defenses against defamation:

  • Justification or Truth: In civil law, showing that a statement is true is a valid defense. The accuracy of the statement is essential. If a statement is substantially true, it may not be considered libel.
  • Fair Comment: This defense involves expressing an opinion rather than asserting a fact. The comment must be fair, without malice, and relate to a matter of public interest.
  • Privilege: Certain occasions are recognized by the law as privileged, where the right to freedom of speech outweighs the right to reputation. Privilege can be absolute or qualified, depending on the circumstances.

Conclusion

Defamation is a complex area of tort law that deals with protecting an individual's reputation. Understanding its meaning, essentials, and defenses is crucial for both plaintiffs and defendants in defamation cases. While the law seeks to protect individuals from harm to their reputation, it also recognizes the importance of freedom of speech and the right to express opinions.

The document Defamation in Law of Torts | Law Optional Notes for UPSC is a part of the UPSC Course Law Optional Notes for UPSC.
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FAQs on Defamation in Law of Torts - Law Optional Notes for UPSC

1. What is defamation?
Ans. Defamation refers to the act of making false statements about someone that harm their reputation. It involves the communication of false information to a third party, resulting in damage to the person's character or standing in the community.
2. What is the difference between criminal and civil defamation?
Ans. Criminal defamation is a criminal offense where the false statement is made with the intention of harming the reputation of the person. It is prosecuted by the state and can result in penalties such as fines or imprisonment. On the other hand, civil defamation is a tort, where the false statement causes harm to the person's reputation, and the victim can sue the defamer for damages.
3. What is the distinction between libel and slander in English law?
Ans. Libel and slander are both forms of defamation, but they differ in the medium through which the false statement is communicated. Libel refers to defamation in written or printed form, such as through newspapers, magazines, or online publications. Slander, on the other hand, refers to defamation in spoken or transient form, such as through speeches, interviews, or conversations.
4. What are the essentials of defamation?
Ans. To establish a case of defamation, certain essentials must be met. These include: - The statement must be false and defamatory, i.e., it harms the reputation of the person. - The statement must refer to the plaintiff, either directly or indirectly. - The statement must be communicated to a third party who understands its defamatory nature. - The defendant must be at fault in making the false statement, either through negligence or intention.
5. What defenses are available in defamation cases?
Ans. There are several defenses available in defamation cases, including: - Justification or truth: If the statement made is true, it is a complete defense as there is no falsity involved. - Privilege: Certain situations, such as statements made in court proceedings, legislative bodies, or by government officials, may enjoy qualified or absolute privilege, providing a defense against defamation claims. - Fair comment: If the statement is a genuine expression of opinion based on facts and relates to a matter of public interest, it may be considered fair comment and not defamation. - Innocent dissemination: If a person unknowingly distributes defamatory material without knowledge of its defamatory nature, they may be able to use the defense of innocent dissemination. Note: The given questions and answers are based on the provided article. It is important to conduct further research or consult legal professionals for comprehensive and accurate information regarding defamation in law of torts.
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