Comparative Defamation Law: England and the United States


“Comparative Defamation Law: England and the United States” 

Vincent R. Johnson 

University of Miami International and Comparative Law Review

University of Miami Law School


In many respects, the relevant principles of English and American defamation law are so similar that they seem to have been written with the same pen. For example:

  • “Substantially true” statements are not actionable.
  • A defamatory communication must have been published to a third third person other than the plaintiff.
  • Whether an assertion is defamatory is determined from the perspective of a reasonable person.
  • Printers, distributors, and sellers of publications are not liable for defamation if they are unaware of a publication’s libelous content.
  • In limited circumstances, liability is imposed for failure to remove a defamatory statement posted by another.
  • Aggregate communications are governed by a single publication rule for purposes of the statute of limitations.
  • The originator of a defamatory utterance may be responsible for damages caused by foreseeable republication, and thus the sender of a defamatory letter may be liable for publishing its contents to a third person other than the addressee who reads the letter.
  • Slanderous imputations of a serious criminal offense or incompetence in business, trade, or profession may be actionable without proof of special damages.


One of the major differences between English and American defamation law relates to the governing provisions. In England, a unified body of common law and statutory principles governs all libel and slander cases. In contrast, in the United States, tort law is mainly state law, and therefore it differs to some extent throughout the fifty states and the District of Columbia. Consequently, it is sometimes easier to speak confidently about the substance of English law than to summarize the content of the corresponding American principles.


English defamation law is in many respects pro-plaintiff, whereas  American defamation law is largely pro-defendant. This is true because of a choice of values. In any society, the law governing defamation reflects “the assumptions of that society respecting the relative importance of an untarnished reputation, on the one hand, and an uninhibited press, on the other.


English defamation law places a priority on protecting the reputations of potential plaintiffs. That choice is today anchored in the text of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and in the United Kingdom’s Human Rights Act. Article 10 of the ECHR, which deals with freedom of expression, provides that:

  • Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers…
  • The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.

In contrast to England, the United States has decided, in a wide range of cases involving matters of public interest, that free expression and vigorous public debate are often more important than compensating plaintiffs for harm caused by defamatory falsehood. “It is hardly an exaggeration to describe the United States as exceptional in its commitment to free speech as a right.” In the field of libel and slander, “dozens of rules conspire to favor defamation defendants, which means that victims of false and defamatory statements are often left without effective remedies.” Notably, “in the United States, reputation is not one of the fundamental rights protected by the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution.


As indicated above, England and the United States agree that a plaintiff cannot prevail in a libel or slander action based on an expressed or implied statement that is true or substantially true. However, the two countries differ as to whether the plaintiff or defendant has the burden of proof regarding the truth or falsity of the defamatory statement.


England and the United States both struggle with the issue of whether statements of opinion can form the basis for a defamation action. Both countries recognize that some comments cloaked in the language of opinion are really statements of fact, or imply facts, and are therefore actionable if the asserted or implied facts are false. Both countries also recognize that some comments expressing opinions are not actionable. However, England and the United States differ in where they locate the relevant legal analysis, and how they define its operative terms. This is an important difference.

In the United States, the analysis is usually part of the plaintiff’s prima facie case, for in a tort action based on expression, the federal constitution requires the plaintiff to prove that the defendant published a false statement of fact. Thus, if there is an issue as to whether an opinion was really an assertion of fact, or implied false facts, the plaintiff bears the burden of proof, and the risk of non-persuasion.

American courts have ruled that statements were incapable of implying false facts where the defendant described a physician as a“real tool” (McKee v. Laurion);  called a union’s attorney “a very poor lawyer ” (Sullivan v. Conway); and characterized the chairman of an election board as a “lying asshole” (Greenhalgh v. Casey). Other American courts found that a jury could find that a statement was an assertion of fact where a talk show moderator repeatedly accused a judge of being “corrupt” ( Bentley v. Bunton);  a directory described a lawyer as an “ambulance chaser” (Flamm v. American Ass’n of Univ. Women) and fictional literature labeled the plaintiff a “slut” (Bryson v. News Am.Pubs.)

In contrast, in England, the issue is normally addressed in the context of an affirmative defense, that allows the defendant to escape liability for certain statements of opinion. Thus, in England, the burden of proof and risk of non-persuasion fall on the defendant.


Baltimore County Doctor Sues Client Over Online Review

May 7, 2015 

Baltimore County Doctor Sues Client Over Online Review

Lauren Kirkwood,  Daily Record

A Baltimore County doctor is suing a client who posted a negative review online after a visit to his clinic, alleging her statements were defamatory and have resulted in a significant drop in revenue for his business. After visiting Carr Medical Specialities LLC in Lutherville for a massage and facial spa treatment, Tammie J. Monaco sent Dr. Kevin L. Carr, the owner of the practice, an email expressing her dissatisfaction and intent to share her experience online through social media. In a review posted on Yelp, Monaco described the practice as “unprofessional,” the clinic’s bathroom as “filthy” and Carr as a “scam artist.”


May 13, 2015

Baltimore Doctor Sues Former Patient For Bad Review

Medical Malpractice Lawyers

A Baltimore doctor who operates a skin care clinic in Baltimore County, Maryland has filed a defamation lawsuit seeking compensatory damages in excess of $75,000 and punitive damages in the amount of $1 million against a former patient who wrote a negative review of him and his clinic and posted it on Yelp.

At the conclusion of a hearing on May 7, 2015, a Baltimore judge granted the doctor’s request for a temporary restraining order that orders the former patient to remove all online posts regarding the doctor and his clinic, and further preventing the patient from posting online anything regarding the doctor or his clinic.

The patient had gone to the doctor’s skin care clinic on April 1, 2015 for a facial treatment and a massage. According to the doctor’s lawsuit, the patient arrived twenty minutes late for her appointment and complained about having to wait in a treatment room after agreeing to an abbreviated treatment time. The doctor alleges that his employee offered to stay late for the patient’s treatment but the patient left the clinic.

The doctor’s lawsuit reportedly alleges that the patient had sent him an email complaining about her experience at the clinic and advising the doctor of her intention to post about her experience at the clinic on social media.

The patient reportedly posted online comments to the effect that the doctor was a “scam artist,” that his practice was “unprofessional,” and that his clinic’s bathroom was “filthy.” The patient allegedly posted false allegations that the doctor’s clinic was understaffed and that the doctor had failed to “show up for work” on the day of the patient’s appointment, and she allegedly failed to note in her review that she had appeared for her appointment late after rescheduling her appointment at the last minute, and that she had been refunded the $40 that she had paid for her appointment, according to the doctor’s lawsuit.

In seeking the temporary restraining order, the doctor alleged that his clinic suffered a significant reduction in its business after the Yelp review appeared. The doctor’s lawsuit alleges that a significant part of the clinic’s business results from Yelp and that the reduction in the number of visitors to its website and patients to the clinic since the defendant’s negative false Yelp review appeared represents an immediate, substantial and irreparable harm to his business for which he is entitled to the issuance of a temporary restraining order against the defendant.

If you suffered an unexpected injury in Baltimore or elsewhere in the United States that may be due to medical negligence, you should promptly find a medical malpractice attorney in Baltimore, in Maryland, or in your U.S. state who may investigate your medical injury claim for you and represent you in a medical malpractice case, if appropriate.


Case Information:

Court System: Circuit Court for Baltimore County – Civil System

Case Number: 03C15004927

Title: Carr, et al V. Monaco

Case Type: Tort

Plaintiff 1: Kevin L Carr

Plaintiff 2: Carr Medical Specialties LLC

Defendant 1: Tammie J Monaco

Filing Date: 05.06.2015

Case Disposition: Dismissal 11/25/2015

Source Carr, et al. v. Monaco, Circuit Court for Baltimore County, Case No. 03-C-15-004927.

Doctors Who Sued Their Patients