Anyone can be a victim of “defamation of character,” whether it’s in the form of slander (a verbal attack) or libel (slander that’s written and distributed). In the rarefied arena of residential communities, emotions can run high when people feel they are defending their turf, and they tend to approach the most mundane issues on a personal level. And the lightning-fast media now available through the Internet has only encouraged the broadcast of everybody’s opinion. Fact-checking and accuracy may have a hard time keeping up.
And accuracy means everything when criticism escalates to court action, since the dissemination of truth or facts is not libelous. The crime is in spreading falsehoods.
“There may be a lot of recklessness that these [electronic] media allow,” states Daniel Polvere, partner in the law firm McCullough, Stievater & Polvere of Charlestown, Massachusetts. In a community association, the management, as well as the trustees and directors, are the most likely victims, he adds. “Typically, it would be a majority of the board taking criticism” since they usually act as a group. “What I have seen,” he continues, “is unit owners putting up their own websites…” with accusations or criticism posted. “Mostly it’s aimed at trustees or directors, and for them, a thick skin is the best response.”
What are the chances of getting sued for slinging allegations about somebody’s bad behavior? Legal experts report that it’s a rare occurrence. The circumstances for a case must be very specific, and certain criteria need to be met. “For instance,” says Polvere, “if someone gets up at a meeting announcing that Mr. X has been embezzling funds [and it’s unsubstantiated], that’s slander, but you—as the victim—would have to show a financial loss to bring a claim. If it was an example of libel, where the allegations are in writing… you don’t have to prove specific damages. The defamation laws use the term ‘publish’ to identify libel, and it means to get the word out… into circulation. Now, ‘publish’ can mean items appearing on the Internet in social media.” The term “publish,” used in the context of defamation law, is not just confined to print—it can mean statements made to the third party.
Then too, there are different rules for public figures. “If you are famous, a public figure, such as celebrity or politician, you’d have to show that the libel [included] an intent to injure,” states Polvere. “Speech in the political arena… would have to be really bad to give rise to court action.”