Continuing Mudd Law Offices‘ series of articles on defamation, this article discusses Utah defamation law. Mudd Law Offices has practiced defamation law for more than ten (10) years. It represents corporations, individuals, and other entities that have been defamed. It also represents those who have been sued for defamation. In fact, in defending Internet anonymous speakers and service providers, its attorneys have been involved in setting appellate precedent in Illinois and Arizona.
Charles Mudd, our principal attorney, is licensed to practice law in Utah.
Defamation in Utah
In Utah, a defamation plaintiff must allege and establish the following elements: (1) The defendant published the alleged defamatory statements in print (often referred to as libel) or in oral communications (often referred to as slander); (2) the alleged defamatory statements are false; (3) the defendant failed to have a privilege to make the alleged defamatory statements; (4) the defendant published the alleged defamatory statements with the “requisite degree of fault;” and (5) the alleged defamatory statements resulted in the plaintiff suffering damages. Jacob v. Bezzant, 2009 UT 37, P21 (Utah 2009) (citation omitted)
The term “publication” in defamation constitutes a legal term of art meaning that it has a particular use within the legal context. Specifically, in the defamation context, publication means any communication of a defamatory statement to a third person. Smith v. Nu Skin Enters., 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 90560, at *8 (D. Utah Nov. 5, 2008) (citing Restatement (Second) Of Torts § 577(1)).
As to the requisite degree of fault, this varies depending on the nature of the plaintiff. If a Plaintiff is a private person, or in other words not a public figure, the “requisite degree of fault” is negligence. Oman v. Davis Sch. Dist., 2008 UT 70, P69 (Utah 2008). If the plaintiff is a public figure, like a politician or a celebrity, then the plaintiff must show that the defendant made the statements with “actual malice.” O’Connor v. Burningham, 2007 UT 58, P8 (Utah 2007).
Actual malice represents another term of art that means publishing a statement knowing it to be false or “with a reckless disregard for the truth.” Id. The actual malice standard is stricter than the negligence standard. Although there exist several reasons behind this elevated or heightened standard, the arguably most important reason is that a heightened standard for public officials encourages people to engage in public discourse involving public figures without fearing that they could be liable for defamation if they happen to be negligently incorrect in their statements.
As stated above, libel and slander constitute two distinct types of defamation. Generally, written or visual defamation will be libel, and oral defamation will be slander. It should be noted that it could be more difficult to prevail on a defamation claim involving slander than libel.
Statute of Limitations for Civil Defamation
Pursuant to Utah Code § 78 B-2-302, a claim for defamation (whether libel or slander) must be brought within one year.
Utah also provides for criminal defamation, which is a Class B Misdemeanor. Pursuant to Utah Criminal Code § 76-9-404: “A person is guilty of criminal defamation if he knowingly communicates to any person orally or in writing any information which he knows to be false and knows will tend to expose any other living person to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule.”
Pursuant to Utah Code § 76-1-302, there exists a two year statute of limitations for criminal defamation.
Written by Mark A. Petrolis, Associate, Mudd Law Offices with contributions from Charles Lee Mudd Jr.
The Principal of Mudd Law Offices, Charles Mudd, is licensed in Utah.