Legally Speaking: Defamation — How much is my reputation worth?

Sarah Robidas-Afshari, J.D., LL.L., BA.; Daniel Romano, B.C.L., LL.B., MA

In Arthur Miller’s play, The Crucible, about the Salem Witch Trials, we have a perspective on how much a reputation is worth.

When falsely accused of promoting witchcraft, John Proctor has the option of avoiding a death sentence if he signs a confession. In the final scene, he agonizes over the dignity of his name and reputation and finally tears up the false confession. His name and his reputation were worth more to him than life itself.

The Law recognizes the value of a good name and offers some protection against damages to a person’s reputation. Defamation refers to damaging another person’s reputation by making false statements to a third party. Defamation is more specifically referred to as “slander” when done through oral statements and ‘libel’ when done in writing.  When comments published or stated are true and of public interest, they will generally not be considered defamatory unless the goal was to cause harm to the person. A person cannot hide behind the right to freedom of expression for the sole purpose of causing damage to another person.

These days, a person’s good name and earned reputation can be discredited through various newer platforms such as public comments on media, blog posts, letters or even e-mails to colleagues, friends or neighbors. Defamatory statements can either be explicit or implicit in that they could be an insinuation, an interrogative phrase or even the reminder of a rumor. Defamation occurs when there is a decrease in the esteem and respect that other people have for the person about whom the comments are made.

Defamation has been forbidden in Judaic law for thousands of years. In England, libel law developed in the 16th and 17th century criminal statutes designed to protect the nobility from criticism. Although it is still a crime in Canadian law, it is rarely prosecuted and in Quebec it has long been official policy not to prosecute for this crime. If someone has been defamed, the only “legal” recourse appears to be in private law – you sue the person directly for damages and/or an injunction.

The Civil Code of Quebec and the Quebec Charter of Human Rights of Freedom state that every person has the right to the safeguard of their name and reputation. Rights can be extinguished through the passage of time and this applies to defamation as well. This “prescription period” can vary depending on circumstances, but it is always quite short. It is best to consult with an attorney as soon as you become aware that someone is defaming you, so as not to lose your rights.

The monetary compensation one can obtain in Court for a damaged reputation varies depending on the situation. A person could be compensated for loss of money and business opportunities. The courts could award a sum of money for moral damages to compensate for the humiliation, ridicule, psychological impact, stress, troubles and inconveniences imposed upon the victim.

The court will consider the gravity of the act, how widespread the distribution was, and whether the audience was carefully selected to have a greater impact on the victim. The courts can also award a sum of money for punitive damages designed to prevent, denounce and deter others from engaging in similar conduct. In order to obtain punitive damages, a person will have to demonstrate that the act was not only unlawful but that it was also committed with the intention to cause harm.

Sometimes, the damages that you might expect a court to award you even if you win your case might amount to less than the cost of the legal fees. In such a case, the question of whether to sue or not becomes less a financial question and more a matter of principle.

How much is it worth to you to put an end to the defamation and to protect your good name? At the end of the day, it will be up to you to weigh the balance and decide if your reputation is worth the cost of |fighting for it.

Daniel Romano and Sarah Robidas-Afshari are attorneys with KALMAN SAMUELS, a family law firm.

Dear Reader, these articles are published to provide you with general information about interesting legal topics and not as a legal opinion. Do not hold the author, KALMAN SAMUELS, Attorneys, or The Senior Times liable for any consequences arising from attempts to rely on this material. If you need a legal opinion for a specific matter, consult a qualified attorney.

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