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slander

Sex and Slander: Defamation in North Carolina

When people call it quits, they might cut off their noses to spite their faces. Although it is tempting to tell the world about all the rotten things your ex has done, remember you might be held liable for money damages.  Don’t be an angry e-mailer and be careful using Facebook. Clients are often surprised to find their messages get forwarded and forwarded, eventually reaching their exes.

What is Defamation?

Defamation is a broad category of false and wrongful communications. It refers to “defaming” someone, saying things that harm someone’s reputation. There are two types of defamation.  Slander is a spoken communication, and libel is printed communication.  Using an over-simplified definition, defamation of private citizens occurs when someone makes a false defamatory statement about a person to a third party, ridiculing him or her, or creating contempt against him or her. Additionally, the statements must create some sort of injury to the person’s reputation or cause some sort of damage. Griffin v. Holden, 180 NC App. 129 (2006). Depending on what the communication is, and what the circumstances are, defamation might turn into a criminal communication but this article is about civil defamation and refers to matters involving sexual relationships.

Morality, Crimes, and Family Law

Communication about sexual relationships has always been a staple of defamation cases, especially when people break up or divorce. Defamation may be a false accusation that someone committed a crime, defined as violations of criminal laws enacted based on public morality or decency. But, defamation may also be offensive communication accusing someone of a non-criminal act. Now largely discarded, there were numerous old NC cases concerning a woman’s chastity, legally known as “incontinence” based on an 1808 Act. Pregnancy of an unmarried woman, or having a child out of wedlock were essentially crimes in this state until fairly recently. Although the crimes of fornication, adultery and crimes against nature laws are still on the books, they have been essentially overruled, along with the crime of falsely registering as husband and wife in a hotel to occupy “the same bedroom for immoral purposes.”

Today’s Defamation

Examples of defamation by falsely accusing someone of a criminal act include false comments about incest, bigamy, indecent liberties with a child, and secret peeping into an occupied room. Another common category of defamation is falsely saying someone has a “loathsome disease,” referring to sexually transmitted disease or other infectious disease. In one odd case, Kroh v. Kroh, 152 N.C. App. 347 (2002), the court held that an estranged wife slandered her husband by saying he had sex with the family dog to both his co-worker and his long term friend. When people sue the person with whom their spouse has had an affair for alienation of affections (luring them to separate from the spouse) or criminal conversation (the act of intercourse), there is often a defamation counterclaim.  Naturally, this turn of events makes it tempting to vent on Facebook or other social media but think before you post.

Defenses

If you prove the comment was true, it is a defense to a claim defamation. There are a number of other defenses to a defamation claim. Court documents and testimony during court proceedings are protected from claims as long as the communications are generally made in good faith.  Reporting an act of suspected neglect or abuse of a child to the state is also protected from defamation claims if the report is made in good faith, regardless of whether any neglect or abuse is discovered. Comments between married people are also generally protected, as are debates by legislators.

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