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Legal Matters: Understand libel and slander after breakup

After the breakup, your ex-boyfriend finds out you have been telling friends about the times he grabbed and held you against your will, refused to leave your apartment when you told him to go, and used various tactics to track your movements. He threatens to sue you for libel or slander if you publicize anything or tell anyone about his behavior. Can he?

It is common for someone who knows his actions may violate laws to try to silence his victim. Whether he could successfully sue and be awarded payment from you for damaging his reputation depends on what you publicized about his actions and whether what you was accurate.

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Libel and slander are civil wrongs that harm a person's reputation, decrease respect or generate hostile feelings against him. Libel is false communication that can be seen, such as a writing, movie or effigy. Slander is false communication that can be heard.

Important word: false. If what you told friends about his behavior was true, you have what is called an absolute defense to any defamation lawsuit. If you can prove what you said about your ex-boyfriend was true, he may have created hassle for you, but his lawsuit is over. And he will have to pay the lawyer who was fool enough to take his case.

If you posted his photo on Facebook with the caption "Stalker," you may have created legal trouble for yourself. Stalking is a crime with a legal definition: a "malicious course of conduct that includes approaching or pursuing another where the person intends to place or knows or reasonably should have known the conduct would place another in reasonable fear" of assault, rape, false imprisonment, serious bodily injury or death.

You have no legal right to pin a "stalker" label on him publicly unless he has been convicted of that crime. Your false accusation could cost him a security clearance or job, and cause him public embarrassment and humiliation.

Suppose you tell friends that after the breakup, he texted you — correctly — where you went and what you did for the rest of the day . Your friends say, "He stalked you." If he learns of the conversation, he cannot sue you for slander. You simply reported his actions truthfully.

What if, in succeeding weeks, you see him sitting in his parked car across the street from your home, following you to work or parking outside your office as your day ends?

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner, speaking on "Good Morning, America" in February 2010, advised that before deciding what to do about a potential stalker, ask yourself two questions: One, do you feel you're being stalked? And two, do you feel it's dangerous?

"In the first [instance], what you have to do is convey to the person who's being a nuisance that you do not want to have any further contact with him or her," Welner said. "Do it in writing because you must create a paper trail for legal reasons."

If the behavior continues, you may want to pursue legal action against him.

Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Reach her with questions or feedback at 410-840-2354 or denglelaw@gmail.com. Her column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times.

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