A&A: How Can I Sue A Newspaper for Defamation?

Q: I would Like to know how I sue a newspaper for defamation. Or if not the newspaper, then the editor?

A:The First Amendment Coalition does not encourage nor promote lawsuits against newsgatherers.  The First Amendment provides strong protections to news organizations and others that publish information, and defamation claims in particular are difficult to prove. 

Defamation, which is also sometimes referred to as libel or slander, is the general term for a legal claim involving injury to one’s reputation caused by a false statement of fact.  In general, statements of fact, as well as statements that are opinion, cannot support a libel or defamation claim.  The crux of a defamation claim is falsity.  Therefore, truth is one of the primary defenses to a libel claim because truthful statements that harm another’s reputation will not create liability for libel.  There are additional defenses as well, including statements that are purely opinion and statements protected by some qualified or absolute privilege. 

If you were to file a lawsuit for defamation against the newspaper and/or editor, it would likely be met with an anti-SLAPP motion to strike, which is a procedural mechanism in California that allows defendants the opportunity to dispose of such lawsuits early on if the court finds that the speech at issue is protected by the First Amendment. 

A “SLAPP” is a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation, and under the anti-SLAPP statute, if the defendant can show that the statements at issue arise from the right of free speech under the U.S. or California Constitution and are in connection with a public issue (which is broadly defined), and the plaintiff cannot show that, despite this, he or she can establish a probability of prevailing on her claims, then the lawsuit will be dismissed. 

Successful defendants are entitled to recoup their attorneys’ fees, as the statute contains a mandatory fee-shifting statute if the defendant prevails on the motion.  Given it’s very difficult for plaintiffs to prevail on defamation claims, you risk not only losing the lawsuit against the newspaper, but also paying its attorneys’ fees. 

Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP is general counsel for the First Amendment Coalition and responds to FAC hotline inquiries. In responding to these inquiries, we can give general information regarding open government and speech issues but cannot provide specific legal advice or representation.  No attorney-client relationship has been formed by way of this response.