D. Libel and Slander

Author:Philip H. Osborne
Profession:Faculty of Law. The University of Manitoba

Page 412

At common law, defamatory statements are categorized as either libel or slander. Originally, the distinction turned on whether the communication was written (libel) or verbal (slander). Libel is viewed as the more serious form of defamation because of its permanence, the greater likelihood that it was premeditated, and its capacity for wider dissemination. It is actionable without proof of special damage. Slander is, in contrast, more likely to be transient and impromptu and its publication is limited to those within hearing distance of the defendant. As a general rule, it is actionable only on proof of special damage. This has proved to be a difficult distinction to apply with the advent of modern communications such as radio, film, television, facsimile transmission, e-mail, and Internet postings. Happily, many provinces, including Alberta, Manitoba, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island, have legislatively abolished the distinction between libel and slander. In those provinces all defamatory statements are actionable without proof of special damage. In the provinces that maintain the distinction, there has been some adjustment in the traditional meaning of libel to accommodate modern circumstances. In general, emphasis is now placed on visibility and permanence as the primary characteristics of libel so as to include film, e-mail, and other computer communications. There has also been some legislative reform categorizing television and radio broadcasts as libel.19The only significant substantive difference between libel and slander that remains in the common law relates to the proof of damage....

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