Libel is a published or fixed form of defamation of character; a civil wrong that falsely impugns the reputation or character of a person or entity, opening the target up to public scorn or ridicule. It might appear in a magazine, book, newspaper, or in a radio or television broadcast. Signs, billboards or posters can also be mediums for this form of defamation. Online libel, or cyberlibel, takes electronic forms such as email, mailing lists, newsgroups, chat rooms, podcasts, vodcasts and Web pages. A false charge that is uttered but not published is considered slander.
For something to be considered libel, it must involve false statements knowingly presented as fact. In the United States, opinion is protected as a tenant of freedom of speech, and citizens retain the right to comment on public figures and entities, including government and officials. Entertainment, parody, editorials, and criticisms that may arguably misrepresent facts are not libelous so long as they are presented for amusement or stated as mere opinion.
According to legal experts, one key reason for this seeming double standard is that, unlike private citizens, public figures have access to the media. This means that celebrities, government officials, and other high-profile figures have a public forum for addressing publicized false statements. It is also understood that a public figure is a source for comment and criticisms, and that those entering into public life must accept this as part and parcel of celebrity.
In recent years, cyberlibel has become an issue. Although many citizens do not yet realize it, comments made to chat boards, newsgroups, and even mailing lists are all forms of publication. Criticisms of companies or their goods can be a basis for charges if the poster misrepresents facts or fails to qualify his or her post as opinion. Businesses recognize the power of the Internet, and word-of-mouth becomes exponential when comments are posted to a worldwide medium.
To help protect themselves from libel charges, individuals should keep a log of all contact they have with a company or person over any potential disagreement. People should try to work things out amicably, but if compelled to spread the word about a poor experience, they should avoid exaggeration. It's best for people to stick to facts and, if making a generalization based on their experiences, be sure to state it is as opinion.