Defamation and the Fair Report Privilege

What is defamation?

“Defamation of character” is a catch-all term for any statement that harms a person’s reputation to the the extent that it lowers the person in the eyes of the community.

Written defamation is called “libel,” while spoken defamation is called “slander.” Defamation is not a crime, but it is a “tort” (a civil wrong, rather than a criminal wrong).

Why does it matter?

Your documentation at a public meeting can fall into the definition of defamation if basic guidelines are not followed. Furthermore, a person who has been defamed can sue the person or publication that did the defaming for damages. To establish a claim for defamation in Illinois, the accuser must show that the defendant published a false, unprivileged statement about the plaintiff to a third party, causing harm to the plaintiff’s reputation. In addition, if the plaintiff is a public official or public figure, he or she must prove that the defendant acted with “actual malice,” meaning with knowledge that the statement was false or produced with reckless disregard for its falsity.

Fortunately, simple, preventative measures can be taken:

The Fair Report Privilege

The Fair Report Privilege shields a publisher (City Bureau) from liability for defamation where two requirements are met: 1) the report is of an official proceeding and 2) the report is complete and accurate or a fair abridgment of the official proceeding.

“Official proceedings” include court proceedings and government meetings. A “fair abridgment” means that the report must convey to readers a substantially correct amount, in other words, the report may not omit, add or charge anything in such a way as to to convey an erroneous or defamatory impression.

Lastly: staff review submitted content to ensure the Fair Report Privilege applies, but it is also your responsibility to review the Documenters Field Guide to ensure you are prepared. Following these basic guides can keep you protected from defamation while keeping your content informative for the public.