Every man has a ‘right to reputation’. Defamation is a tort which injures reputation and is therefore actionable. As stated in Dixon v Holden (1869) 7 Eq. 488, “A man’s reputation is his property, and if, possible, more valuable, than other property”.
Winfield has defined defamation as “publication of statement which tends to lower a person in the estimation of tight thinking members of society generally or which makes them shun or avoid that person”. It is not only the injury which a man may himself suffer, it includes any injury to the reputation of his wife, his children or dependants if the injury suffered by them has a direct bearing on the reputation of the man who alleges to have suffered an injury.
It is important to note that defamation is both a civil and a criminal wrong. A person can institute criminal proceedings against the writer or the publisher or he can sue him in a civil action for damages in tort for the injury he has suffered. The law of defamation like many other branches of the law of torts provides for balancing of interests (i.e. reputation v freedom of speech). Defamation is a reasonable restriction, on the fundamental right of freedom of speech and expression [Art. 19(1)(a) of Constitution] and is saved by Article 19(2).
Libel and Slander
English law divides actions for defamation into libel and slander. Libel representation made in some permanent form e.g. writing, printing, picture. Slander is the publication of defamatory statement in a transient form or spoken words or gestures. Slander is like rumours and gossips addressed to the ears of the listeners (libel is addressed to the eye).
While libel is both a civil and criminal wrong and offence, slander is merely a civil wrong, except in certain cases where the spoken words are blasphemous, seditious, and obscene and such as may amount to contempt of the court.
The above stated distinctions do not find any place in India. Under Indian criminal law, libel and slander are treated alike, both of them are considered to be an offence. Libel is actionable per se but slander is actionable only on proof of actual damage. Moreover, weight of various decisions in India is to make slander like libel actionable per se. The limitation period for filing an action for libel as well as slander is one year.
There are certain exceptions where slander is actionable per se,
(1) Imputation of criminal offence to the plaintiff.
(2) Imputation of a contagious disease to the plaintiff which has the effect of preventing others from associating with the plaintiff.
(3) Imputation that a person is incompetent, dishonest or unfit for any assigned job office, profession and so on.
(4) Imputation of adultery or unchastity.