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Words can have the power to cause pain

Freedom of speech is a marvelous right given to all Americans. Politicians are free to hurl insults at each other in the guise of debates and political ads. Newspaper reporters can write stories about how the food industry works to manipulate how we view fat and sugar. And the average citizen can post on Facebook about how she will no longer be shopping at Big Box Store X because she does not like their new line of home furniture, without worrying that her post will result in a midnight knock at the door. This freedom of expression does have some limits, however. A person or group of people cannot engage in libel or slander without the possibility of repercussion.

Both libel and slander come under the broader heading of “defamation.” Defamation, in brief, is a false statement or collection of statements that were made with the intent of hurting an individual or corporation. When the statement is spoken, it is called slander, and if it is done in writing, it is called libel.

Let’s consider a hypothetical situation. For the formal record, this is a situation that is 100 percent hypothetical. An online business specializes in the sale of safe, environmentally friendly, pet-care products. A consumer purchases some cleaning products that the store claims are pet-safe. Several days later her pet ends up at the emergency vet with stomach problems. The dog recovers completely with no permanent ill effects.

The vet believes that the dog likely swallowed something on one of his frequent off-leash walks in the nearby woods. The dog’s owner, however, is convinced that the dog got sick after eating from a bowl newly washed with the pet-product company’s theoretically pet-safe dishwashing detergent. She writes on her Facebook page that the pet-product company is falsely claiming that they carry pet-safe products.

If the pet-product company learns about this posting and can demonstrate that it meets the requirements for libel, the dog owner could be in some serious trouble. The company may choose to file a lawsuit seeking reparation. If you believe that your company has been the victim of libel or slander and that it has harmed your business, you may wish to contact a business attorney to learn how to put a stop to the hurtful accusations.