People in my line of work usually learn the terms “libel” and “slander” in journalism school, but many folks confuse the two. They are not interchangeable.
Both can result from defamation, which is unjustified injury to a person’s reputation, but they are not the same.
Libel is written or printed defamation — that is, defamation in pretty much any form other than spoken word or gestures. An untrue statement published in a newspaper, magazine or on the Web can be subject to libel, which is part of the reason most reputable publishers have a formal process for correcting mistakes brought to their attention.
Slander, on the other hand, is defamation that results from the spoken word, from malicious or false comments or oral statements that are broadcast or made in a public setting. In modern times, such statements can find a long shelf life on the Web, and they can be difficult to rectify or retrieve once uttered.
Steve Wynn’s recent courtroom victory over Joe Francis is an example of what can happen in a slander case. It also shows how seriously juries consider defamatory statements that are shared on the Internet.
Francis made a fortune on “Girls Gone Wild,” those dumb but profitable soft-porn videos of young women taking off their tops. In the course of enjoying his wealth, Francis amassed a $2 million gambling debt at Wynn’s casino here, which Wynn sued to collect.
Francis also made unsubstantiated public statements — three times — about Wynn having threatened him, the sort of comments that cannot go unchecked when you have worked to build a reputation such as Wynn has and have a Nevada gaming license that could be jeopardized. Wynn testified that such lies could cause great harm to his reputation and casino empire and might also lead to an investigation by gaming regulators.
On Sept. 10, a jury decided that Francis had slandered Wynn and set damages at $20 million. Because the jury also felt Francis acted with malice, it awarded Wynn another $20 million in punitive damages the following day.
Wynn, already known locally for his philanthropy, said he will donate money that remains after legal fees to charity. Francis, whose net worth is believed to be more than $150 million, says he will appeal.
Wynn also won $7.5 million in a related defamation suit against Francis, who had wrongly claimed casino personnel had used ulterior practices to keep him betting.
After the verdicts, Wynn referred to Francis as a “digital assassin” and said he’d won an important victory in the Internet age when destructive statements live forever.
Of course, Americans — journalists included — are free to express ourselves, so long as such expression is accurate and factual. But it seems to me that libel and slander laws have not yet been fully defined on the Internet.
Gaming innovator Steve Wynn could prove a pioneer in that regard as well.