Define: Libel

Business, Legal & Accounting Glossary

Definition: Libel

Quick Summary of Libel

Libel is false or malicious content which defames a person. By its definition libel is published, written or broadcasted. Personal injury claims may be filed for libel if a person can prove they have suffered loss or have lost their reputation and are unable to work in their profession. The amount of compensation which is rewarded will depend on the laws in the state, the details of the case and proof of the harm suffered. Consider, however, it can be very difficult to prove financial loss.

Common types of libel may include accusing someone for a crime they did not commit or claiming a person has a contagious disease. Because it is tough to win a libel case it’s important to talk to a personal injury lawyer. The injury lawyer can review your case and determine if your case is worth pursuing. Remember, it is not enough that someone published information which may be harmful to you it is important that you can prove some type of loss.

What is the dictionary definition of Libel?

Dictionary Definition

a false and malicious publication printed for the purpose of defaming a living person

  1. A written or pictorial statement which unjustly seeks to damage someone’s reputation.
  2. The act or crime of displaying such a statement publicly.
  3. Any defamatory writing; a lampoon; a satire.
  4. A written declaration or statement by the plaintiff of his cause of action, and of the relief he seeks.
  5. A brief writing of any kind, especially a declaration, bill, certificate, request, supplication, etc.
  6. To defame someone, especially in a manner that meets the legal definition of libel.
  7. To proceed against (a ship, goods, etc.) by filing a libel.


Full Definition of Libel

A form of Defamation in which imputations are made in a permanent, or reasonably permanent, form. Speech can not, in general, be libellous, but it may amount to Slander. Television broadcasts, audio and video recordings, and films, may amount to libel, as may any form of writing or printing. The libel need not even be in words: in Monson v Tussauds Ltd a wax effigy was held to be libellous.

The distinction between libel and slander can be important for the claimant because the claimant does not have to show special damage. This might make the claim easier to prove. Of course, the claimant still has to show that the imputation was, as a matter of fact, defamatory.

Technically, libel is a crime as well as a Tort. Prosecutions for the crime are extremely rare.

A libel may be defined to be a false and malicious defamation expressed in print, writing or by signs, tending to injure the reputation of another and exposing him to public hatred, contempt or ridicule. It is not, however, the mere writing of libellous matter which is actionable, but they must be a publication of the libel in order to entitle the party aggrieved by it to a civil remedy. The libellous matter must moreover be falsely and maliciously published; its trust may be specially pleaded in answer to the action. Where the natural tendency and import of the language used in any publication is to defame and injure another, the law will then presume that the publisher acted maliciously. Defamation pure and simply afford presumptive evidence of malice.

Libel is a false, defamatory and malicious writing, picture, or the like tending to injure the reputation of another, Slander is a false, defamatory and malicious verbal statement tending to injure the reputation of an other. A libel is of itself an infringement of a right, and no actual damage need be proved in order to sustain an action. Slander, on the other hand, is not of itself an infringement of a right, unless damage ensues, either actually or presumptively. In libel, the matter must be false and defamatory and must be maliciously published. In slander, there is one ingredient more viz, damage.

Underhill On Torts

Where the statement is expressed in words only it is oral slander but may not always be actionable, unless followed by actual damages.

Collect On Torts

Damages are not recoverable for mental distress alone caused to the plaintiff by slanderous words conveying insult.

Still, some words are actionable without proof of damage, if maliciously spoken and false and defamatory. Thus falsely to impute to anyone that he has been guilty of any criminal offence, or that he is afflicted with any loathsome or contagious disease, as leprosy, etc., which would cause him to be shunned, or to speak falsely of a tradesman that he uses false weights, or to impute misconduct or gross ignorance or incapacity to professional men in the discharge of their professional duty, eg., to say of a medical man that he has misconducted himself with his female patients, or of a clergyman that he leads an immoral life. Such imputations, if the party is still in the exercise and practice of his trade or profession at the time, are actionable without proof of damage.  All other slanders, unless followed by actual damage, the legal and natural consequence of it, is not actionable.

The matter must be false. To be actionable, the words, whether written or spoken must be false. Truth is an answer to the action, not because it negatives the charge of malice (for a person may, wrongfully and maliciously, utter slanderous matter though true, and thereby subject himself to an indictment) but because it shows that he is not entitled to recover damages in respect of an injury to character which he either does not, or ought not to possess.  It is enough if the statement, though not perfectly accurate, is substantially true.

The definition of libel depends upon whom is asked. It is clear that the definition of libel in U. S. law revolves around defamation of character in the written form. One definition of libel may not be enough to satisfy most, so we’ve put together the top 10 definitions of libel from various legal resources.

  • Definition of libel 1: Libel is the written act of defamation, vs. slander, the oral act of defamation.
  • Definition of libel 2: use of print or pictures to harm someone’s reputation. Until 1964, a person could prove that they had been libelled simply by showing that the statements in question were incorrect. In 1964, the Supreme Court decided that public officials had to prove that the statements in question were made with “actual malice”-for the purpose of harming the person’s reputation. As a result of the Supreme Court case, Time, Inc. v. Firestone (1976); private individuals only have to prove negligence, rather than “actual malice,” on the part of the press.
  • Definition of libel 3: Defamation of an individual or individuals in a published work, with malice aforethought. In litigation, the falsity of the libellous statements or representations, as well the intention of malice, has to be proved for there to be libel. In addition, financial damages to the parties so libelled must be incurred as a result of the material in question for there to be an assessment of the amount of damages to be awarded to a claimant. This is contrasted to slander, which is defamation through the spoken word.
  • Definition of libel 4: Libel per se describes statements, which are widely understood to be harmful to a person’s reputation. For example, referring to an individual as an alcoholic or criminal, or any description, which would lower the reputation of that individual in the eyes of others. These words are harmful and libellous.
  • Definition of libel 5: A written, printed, or pictorial statement that unjustly defames someone publicly. Prosecution of libel as a punishable offense puts some measure of restriction on freedom of the press under the First Amendment.
  • Definition of libel 6: To defame, or expose to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule, by a writing, picture, sign, to lampoon. A tort consisting of false and malicious publication printed for the purpose of defaming a living person.
  • Definition of libel 7: To publish in print writing or pictures, broadcast through radio, television or film something that is false about someone else which would cause harm to that person or his/her reputation by bringing the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn, or contempt of others. Libel is defamation, which is written, or broadcast and is distinguishable from slander, which is oral defamation.
  • Definition of libel 8: A malicious publication expressed either in print or in writing, or by pictures, effigies, or other signs, tending to expose another to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule. Such publication is indictable at common law.
  • Definition of libel 9: Published material meeting three conditions: The material is defamatory either on its face or indirectly; The defamatory statement is about someone who is identifiable to one or more persons; and, The material must be distributed to someone other than the offended party; i.e. published; distinguished from slander.
  • Definition of libel 10: A publication without justification or lawful excuse, which is calculated to injure the reputation of another by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule.

As one can see, the legal definition of libel revolves around the maliciousness of the act and the harm it has caused. The act of libel, according to the law, has to be in a written or visual form such as an article or photograph and has to somehow damage the reputation of a person or business in some way where the courts are the natural place to resolve the claims.

For example, if you were to write and publish an article accusing someone without a criminal record or any other proof of being a “disgusting paedophile” this statement would be very libellous. The person’s reputation would be damaged and you would be open for a libel suit. If, however, you reported that you observed someone with a past criminal record of inappropriate behaviour towards children, in a public place engaging children with candy and games and wondered if this was legal, then this would be a much safer statement.

In a libel case, the hardest part is trying to interpret the intent of the defendant. If someone’s intent was clearly malicious, then a libel case has a good chance of succeeding. Libel is not libel when it is about and an un-definable group of people or organization. Saying all “CEO’s are crooks” is not libel, but specifically naming a person who is a CEO, most likely is.

The best defence in any libel case is “truth” as this element is thought to be something that mutual excludes libel. The concept of “truth” is different from “fact” so it is important to consult an attorney for the specifics.


Examples of Libel in a sentence

He libelled her when he published that.

Cite Term

To help you cite our definitions in your bibliography, here is the proper citation layout for the three major formatting styles, with all of the relevant information filled in.

Page URL
Modern Language Association (MLA):
Libel. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. April 07, 2020
Chicago Manual of Style (CMS):
Libel. Payroll & Accounting Heaven Ltd. (accessed: April 07, 2020).
American Psychological Association (APA):
Libel. Retrieved April 07, 2020, from website:

Definition Sources

Definitions for Libel are sourced/syndicated and enhanced from:

  • A Dictionary of Economics (Oxford Quick Reference)
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Accounting
  • Oxford Dictionary Of Business & Management

This glossary post was last updated: 6th April, 2020