Media Law Handbook



2. Who can sue for libel?

1. Libel

Defamation is a false communication made with fault that damages a person’s reputation.  Libel and slander are the two types of defamation.  Traditionally the term libel referred only to written communication while slander referred to spoken messages.  Historically, libel was treated as the more serious of the two offenses, largely because the written word was capable of reaching a larger audience and was more lasting than the spoken word.  In most states, including North Carolina, broadcast defamation is now treated as libel because it can have both the reach and permanency of printed defamation.[1]  Also, if statements are spoken with the intention that they be printed and they are, in fact, printed, a person who feels he has been defamed by the statements can sue for both libel and slander. Thus, a source who defames someone in an interview with a reporter could be sued for both.[2] 

Libel law is concerned with the effect a particular communication has on the defamed individual’s relationships with others.  It is insufficient for a libel plaintiff to claim hurt feelings or embarrassment.[3]  A defamatory message must affect the way other people view the plaintiff; the message must expose the plaintiff to hatred, contempt or ridicule, lower him in the esteem of others or cause him to be shunned or avoided.


[1] Woody v. Catawba Valley Broad. Co., 272 N.C. 459, 158 S.E.2d 578 (1968).

[2]See, e.g., Aycock v. Padgett, 131 N.C. App. 164, 166, 516 S.E.2d 907, 909 (1999); Phillips v. Winston-Salem/Forsyth Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 117 N.C. App. 274, 278, 450 S.E.2d 753, 756 (1994), cert. denied, 340 N.C. 115, 456 S.E.2d 318 (1995); Clark v. Brown, 99 N.C. App. 255, 261, 393 S.E.2d 134, 137, cert. denied, 327 N.C. 426, 395 S.E.2d 675 (1990).

[3] Flake v. Greensboro News Co., 212 N.C. 780, 788, 195 S.E. 55 (1938).

2. Who can sue for libel?

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