In the throes of the conflict of divorce, people will inevitably say and do things that they will later regret. Now that social media platforms are a part of life for many people, if a person is in a foul mood or feeling bitter about the divorce, he or she has an instant audience with which to share his or her diatribes. When things get ugly, are there legal consequences for such hurtful and potentially damaging words? Can you sue your soon-to-be-former spouse for defamation in the divorce process?
The short answer is “maybe,” but probably not.
What is defamation in Tennessee?
Defamation, in Tennessee, is the act of saying or writing something that damages someone else’s reputation. Defamation in writing is libel, while if it is spoken it is considered slander. For an uttered word or written statement to be considered slanderous or libelous, there are four requirements which it must meet:
- The statement must be false. You cannot accuse someone of libel or slander if what they are saying is the truth and their publicizing it is what is causing you harm.
- It must have caused harm to the plaintiff. Do you have evidence, other than hurt feelings and embarrassment, of the harm you have suffered because of the alleged defamation?
- It must be about the plaintiff. You can take legal action only for libel or slander against you, not on behalf of someone else.
- It must have been published or broadcast in a negligent manner, with a reckless disregard for the truth, or with actual malice. (Actual malice is a standard of proof that public figures are required to satisfy in a defamation lawsuit)
The statute of limitations for slander (spoken defamation) is six months from the moments the words are spoken, and one year for libel (written defamation).
In the end, you must be able to prove that your spouse is saying untrue things about you that have caused your reputation actual harm. For example, if your spouse contacts your employer through Facebook and claims that you are a drug user, and you lose your job as a result, you may be able to make a claim for libel.
However, if your spouse goes online and rants about you being a terrible person, and levies accusations that are grounded in truth (perhaps you do always take the last slice of cake without asking if anyone else wants it), then this is not libel. It is childish and hurtful, yes – but it is not libel.
But what about the freedom of speech?
You are thinking about the rights Americans enjoy thanks to the First Amendment of the Constitution. Opinions are protected speech in the U.S. You can give your opinion about someone as long as you are not making the statement as fact. False statements that are harmful to a person or business do not enjoy protection under the freedom of speech.
Can I sue Facebook because my spouse published hurtful things about me?
Internet service providers and social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, etc. are protected from a special law called the Internet Defamation Law: Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act. This law protects social media platforms and ISPs from lawsuits every time a user posts libelous statements using their platform.
When you are going through a divorce, it is a good idea for you to take a hiatus from posting anything about any aspect of your divorce, your life with your spouse, your activities with your children, or your travels, because every word of it is discoverable by the other party. You have zero expectation of privacy when it comes to posting information about yourself online. If you would rather not hear the opposing counsel read what you have written in open court, don’t write it and don’t post it.
The truth is your best defense
If you can show evidence of how the false words of your soon-to-be-ex have damaged you, your livelihood, reputation or business, you may have a valid defamation case. You, the Plaintiff, have the burden of proving that the statements were both false and defamatory.
If you are involved in a contentious divorce and the other side is making false statements about you that are causing you harm or hurting your reputation, the skilled Nashville divorce attorneys at the Miller Upshaw Family Law firm are here to help you obtain justice..
At Miller Upshaw Family Law, PLLC, our Nashville divorce lawyers are here to support our clients in finding positive solutions throughout the divorce process. You are welcome to reserve an in-person or video consultation with a member of our family law team; please call 615-391-4200 or use our contact form today.