UNDERSTANDING THE DIFFERENCES OF THE THE LEGAL RIGHTS OF BEING DEFAMED
Understanding TRUTH in this type of case
As discussed elsewhere on this site, truth is a complete defense in defamation actions, but only if it involves private plaintiffs and speech relating to matters of purely private concern. It must be plead affirmatively as a defense, and in detail. To constitute a complete defense, however, the matter pleaded and proved as truth must establish the truth of the precise charge made in the defamatory statement. Defendant has the burden of proving the truth of the statement. If the defamatory statement is true, it is immaterial that the defendant believed that it was false at the time the statement was made.
The defense requires a showing that the alleged defamatory statement is substantially true. A statement is substantially true if it would not have a different effect on the mind of the reader from that which the pleaded truth would have produced.
A related theory, called the own words defense, provides a complete defense where the plaintiff’s own statements are accurately quoted, even where there are some contextual discrepancies. This doctrine has neither been accepted, nor rejected, by the New York courts, thus caution must be exercised in asserting this defense.
Evidence which tends, but fails, to establish the truth of the precise charge is admissible to mitigate damages. Where there are separate defamatory statements, defendant may plead truth as to one, but not all. However, where there is only one defamatory statement, proof that the charge is partially true is insufficient to establish the defense. If, however, the defense is broad enough to cover completely one of several interpretations which the jury might reasonably place upon the meaning of the defamatory words, it is sufficient.
Rumor, regardless of how widespread, is not competent evidence on the issue of truth as a defense. Defendant must establish to the jury’s satisfaction that the accusation made in the defamatory statement, taken according to the ordinary meaning of the language used, is substantially true.
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