Laws and Legal Overview of California Defamation
California defines defamation as the communication of false information, which is meant to cause harm to a person or business and exposes one to ridicule, hatred, or contempt. California Civil Code states that either libel or slander effects defamation. If a statement is made verbally, it is slander, and if made in writing, it is libel.
To meet the elements for a defamation cause of action, a successful action must include a false defamatory statement about another, the unprivileged publication of the statement to a third party (not including the person defamed by the statement), and damage to the person defamed.
California law recognizes “defamation per se,” or defamation that is presumed to cause damages without the need for any proof by the defamed person. Defamation per se is typically asserted in instances where there are attacks on a person’s professional character, allegations that an unmarried person is unchaste, allegations that a person is infected with an STD, or allegations that the person has committed a crime of moral “turpitude.”
In California, if a defamation case is not categorized as “per se,” it is defamation “per quod.” Per quod is a Latin term meaning by which or where. If a defamatory publication is per quod, it means that the publication is not defamatory on its face and requires allegations and proof of special damages, for instance, lost profits.
A public figure under California defamation laws is a person who has achieved such pervasive fame or notoriety that they become a public figure for all purposes and in all contexts. Some examples of a public figure under California law include an author, a television personality, the founder of a church, and a real-estate developer.
California law states that a public figure must prove affirmatively that a statement was false. They must also prove actual malice. This means that the defendant made the defamatory statement either with the knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth.
California recognizes that truth is a valid defense against defamation of character charges. Defendants can also win if the plaintiff does not prove negligence on the part of the defendant, or if no harm befell the plaintiff as a result of the false statement of fact.