California law on online defamation

Public figures can successfully win a defamation lawsuit for anonymous online posts but must be undertaken carefully.

Your legal options when faced with libel posted anonymously online.

Prominent figures and celebrities must quickly learn to ignore Internet trolls. While certainly everyone is entitled to their own opinion (however wrong) online defamation is not always something that can be ignored.

What legal options exist for preventing defamation? While generally anonymous posts are protected under the First Amendment, there are exceptions, including for defamation. But bringing a legal action for defamation is something that must be weighed carefully. It is easy to receive negative attention and press for defamation claims. Depending on the source of the defamation, it may not be something that results in a significant monetary settlement.

Still, it may be worthwhile to prevent future instances of online defamation and to hold the poster accountable for his or her actions. One option may be a defamation lawsuit.

Basics of the law

In California, in order to be successful on a claim of defamation, the plaintiff must prove the untrue statement, presented as fact, also:

  • Was unprivileged,
  • Had a "natural tendency to injure" or "causes special damage"; and
  • Was made with what amounts to at least negligence.

Keep in mind that truth is an absolute defense to defamation, so if it can be proven the statement is true, there is no case.

Proving defamation for a public figure

Public figures have a higher bar to prove defamatory statements. Under California law, if you are a public figure, you must show that the person making the defamatory comments made them with "actual malice." In other words, proving someone reported rumor as fact or otherwise negligently published an untrue comment is not enough to win a defamation claim.

Who is a public figure?

"All-purpose" public figures are people who are in "positions of such persuasive power and influence that they are deemed public figures for all purposes." Prominent entertainers fall into this category.

Limited-purpose public figures are people who "have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issue" and people who are well-known only in a certain area or field. If the defamatory comment involves an area in which the person alleging defamation is well-known, then he or she could be treated as a public figure for purposes of the defamation claim.

Online defamation

Blogs, Tweets, social media posts, and other forms of online publication are certainly subject to California's defamation and libel laws. The gray area comes when determining who posted the defamatory comment, which court has jurisdiction, and whether the poster is determined to have acted with actual malice.

In many cases, Internet Service Providers are not held accountable for the illegal actions of service users. Merely hosting a website in which a consumer publishes defamatory comments may not mean the ISP is legally responsible for the comments, although exceptions exist.

In some circumstances, ISPs have been reluctant to disclose the location and identity of users, even if a defamation claim is brought. An ISP can be forced to provide this information through court order. However, a court will not order this unless it determines that there is a legitimate case for defamation.

Questions? Contact the Law Offices of Barry K. Rothman

California attorney Barry K. Rothman is an entertainment lawyer practicing out of Los Angeles. Contact his office if you have questions regarding pursuing a defamation claim.