Social Media Defamation

According to’s online legal dictionary, the definition of defamation is: “the act of making untrue statements about another which damages his/her reputation. If the defamatory statement is printed or broadcast over the media it is libel and, if only oral, it is slander. Public figures, including officeholders and candidates, have to show that the defamation was made with malicious intent and was not just fair comment. Damages for slander may be limited to actual (special) damages unless there is malice. Some statements such as an accusation of having committed a crime, having a feared disease or being unable to perform one’s occupation are called libel per se or slander per se and can more easily lead to large money awards in court and even punitive damage recovery by the person harmed. Most states provide for a demand for a printed retraction of defamation and only allow a lawsuit if there is no such admission of error.

In the Social Media Age, libel and slander can be devastating to a person or the reputation of a business. There are numerous web sites that allow consumers and other third parties to post comments about a business or a person. Under Section 230 of the Communciations Decency Act, ISPs generally have immunity from all information posted on their websites by third party users if they meet a three pronged legal test.

On July 8, 2010, the Lebron James sweepstakes ended when James decided to sign a new contract with the Miami Heat. His old employer, the Cleveland Cavaliers was devastated. Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers’ owner posted an open letter to Cleveland’s fans that bashed James. The letter contains Gilbert’s opinion and does not appear to libel James. However, in an interview with the Associated Press it appears that Gilbert may have slandered James by stating, “He [James] quit, Not just in Game 5 [In the 2010 playoffs], but in Games 2, 4 and 6. Watch the tape. The Boston series was unlike anything in the history of sports for a superstar.” In general, libel and slander lawsuits are more difficult for celebrities to win than for those who are not in the public eye.

James had fulfilled his contract and had no legal obligation to continue to work for the Cleveland Cavaliers. That being said, both James and Gilbert could have handled the situation in a more professional manner. James should not have requested the one hour ESPN special to announce that he was leaving Cleveland and signing with Miami. However, Gilbert’s reaction to James’ decision does not make him a sympathetic figure and it may have caused him some legal liability. The bottom line is that in the Social Media Age every writen or spoken word can be easily disseminated around the world in seconds. Therefore, every time a company communicates with the media it needs to understand both the public relations and legal ramifications of its message.

To learn how to avoid social media defamation you may contact me at

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