athlete in question belonged to a religion that observes
Saturday as the Sabbath a day of quiet and
meditation. The story, as it was printed, defamed the
athlete as not being a devout member of his church.
Libel per quod is the most common of all libels.
Very few publishers intentionally undertake the risk
involved in printing material that is obviously libelous.
However, libel per quod often occurs because of errors
or negligence. There are countless other examples of
libel by circumstances wrong names, wrong
addresses, and so forth.
Libel by circumstances also may result from what
the reader may infer. In a story appearing in a national
magazine, a man was described as being a legislative
representative (lobbyist) for the Communist Party. The
man charged in a suit that this statement damaged his
reputation because it implied he was a communist
sympathizer. Whether the man was, or was not, a
communist sympathizer or a lobbyist for the party was
beside the point. The man claimed he had been defamed,
and his claim was upheld by a federal appeals court.
Guilt by association also is a form of libel per
quod This form of libel, sad to say, has been employed
for many years by unscrupulous politicians and others
seeking positions of power.
Perhaps the most obvious use of this method has
been the linking of various persons to the Communist
Party by innuendo. During a political campaign in the
west several years ago, pamphlets appeared describing
a U.S. senator who was running for re-election, as being
friendly toward communist aims. One of the principal
items of evidence given to support this claim was the
fact that the senator had participated in a pre-World War
II meeting during which Russia and Stalin were praised
as foes of Nazi Germany. The pamphlets were clearly
an example of circumstantial libel what the reader
might infer. The intent of the writers of the pamphlet was
apparently to damage the senators reputation in order
to injure his election prospects.
LIBEL AND THE LAW
LEARNING OBJECTIVE: Recognize the laws
that apply to civil and criminal libel and the
defenses against libel action.
We have pointed out that the laws of libel are state
laws, unlike the U.S. Constitution or other national laws
that bind all U.S. citizens. Libel laws vary from state to
state with each state free to make changes in its libel
code whenever it chooses. As a result, there is little
uniformity among the states regarding award of
damages or the nature of judgments in similar types of
The state laws of libel are complex and can be
understood thoroughly on1y by an attorney or a person
trained in this field. In this section of the chapter, we
only describe some of the ground rules that generally
apply in all states.
There are two types of legal action that can result
from publication of libelous material: civil action and
CIVIL LIBEL ACTION
Civil libel action results when one person sues
another in court because of alleged defamation. This
defamation, again, need not be to the individuals
character or reputation. It can be to a persons business,
occupation or property.
Civil libel also can be committed against a legal
person composed of more than one individual. In this
regard, a corporation, a partnership or any other
association of individuals can be defamed General
Motors could sue an individual for defaming its
products or business practices. Also, an individual could
sue General Motors. One corporation also can sue
Individuals cannot sue the U.S. government,
however, unless it consents to the suit. When people feel
they have been libeled by an agency of the government,
they still cannot bring suit unless the government agrees
to be sued.
Civil libel suits are always between persons,
whether the person is an individual, an association of
individuals or an artificial being, such as a corporation.
A sum of money is the usual compensation awarded by
civil courts for damages. The amount has varied from
one cent, a nominal sum to indicate vindication, to
millions of dollars.
Money awarded in libel cases is intended to
compensate the injured party for mental or physical
suffering and for actual financial loss and to punish the
individual or individuals who committed the libel.
CRIMINAL LIBEL ACTION
Criminal libel action is less common than civil libel
action, but it is much more serious. Criminal libel is a
crime and can be prosecuted in the courts like any other
crime. In criminal libel the state is the accuser and the