II. The meaning of "defamatory"

Before considering taking legal action against an instance of defamation, the plaintiff should first be able to prove that the words or statements (including oral or written matters) under dispute are defamatory. With reference to Gatley on Libel and Slander (10 th Edition ), the meaning of the words in question may first have to be determined before we can decide whether or not the words are actually defamatory within the context in which they were used.

The meaning of the words

This refers to the meaning with which the words would be reasonably understood by ordinary people using their general knowledge and common sense. This includes inferences or implications or indirect meanings which do not require the support of extrinsic (non-fundamental) facts or special knowledge. In so doing, one has to determine the natural and ordinary meanings of the words in question.

Some words have technical or slang meanings or meanings which depend on some special knowledge possessed only by a limited number of persons and not by the general public. On occasions, ordinary words may bear some special meaning other than their natural and ordinary meaning because of some extrinsic facts or circumstances (e.g. the tone of voice or the place of distribution). If this is the case, the plaintiff has to prove to the court that the relevant words do in fact bear technical/slang/special meanings that were also known by the persons to whom the words were published.

Whether or not the meaning is defamatory

Defamation is commonly referred to as the damaging of another's’ reputation by written words or by word of mouth. The publication of those written words or spoken words:

  1. tends to lower the victim in the estimation of right-thinking member of society generally;
  2. tends to make them shun or avoid the victim;
  3. subjects the victim to public hatred, contempt or ridicule; or
  4. demeans the victim in his or her profession or business.

Whether some sort of behaviour or statement would amount to defamation is not determined by the perpetrator (i.e. the originator/defendant) but by those who have heard or seen the alleged defamatory statement or so-called reasonable persons in society who may think that you have the intention to defame another.

  1. If I say or write something bad about a person, but I have no intention of defaming him, would I still be liable for defamation?
  2. As different persons may have different interpretations, levels of acceptance, and sensitivity to any words that might be used, what standard is used to determine if words contain defamatory meanings? Would the context, circumstances, or the place where the words are published have any impact on whether or not the matter may be considered defamatory?
  3. The words in question are included in an article, and only some of the words in the article may amount to defamation. In such a case, how are the meanings of the words determined?
  4. Can a person's acts (not words) be capable of carrying defamatory meaning?
  5. If a person gives nick names to his friends at random (e.g. he called an acquaintance "fatty pig"), has he incurred any liability for defamation?
  6. We all have an interest in the private life of entertainers. We often discuss the various stories published in the media and this might have an adverse effect on some entertainers. Are the publishers liable for defamation?
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