CAN I SUE SOMEONE IF THEY INSULT ME?

Being insulted by another person can be hurtful, embarrassing and damaging. Much of the time we’re told just to develop a thicker skin and move on, but what if the insult is an attack on you or your ability as a person? When it goes this far, it can be considered defamation.

  1. Damaging a person’s reputation

In March 2015, the South Gauteng High Court awarded a human resource manager R50 000 in damages, plus legal costs, after she was called a “liar”; and an “unintelligent white girl” (Nadia van der Westhuizen v Morgan Motlogelwa Ntshabelele, case 2014/27063). The court upheld her claim for damages and agreed that she suffered damage to her reputation as a result of the defamatory remarks made by the defendant.

The defendant, who uttered the defamatory remarks in the presence of fellow employees, including the plaintiff, was retrenched by the employer. The defendant later made further utterances that the court held were per se defamatory. The defendant did not oppose the application.

  1. When is it defamation?

A statement is defamatory if it is likely to injure the good esteem in which a person is held by the reasonable average person to whom it has been published. It includes not only statements that expose a person to hatred, contempt or ridicule, but also statements that are likely to humiliate or belittle the plaintiff; which tend to make him or her look foolish, ridiculous or absurd or which render the plaintiff less worthy of respect by his or her peers.

  1. What can the court do?

The court may exercise its own discretion when awarding damages. Relevant factors for the court to consider include the seriousness of the defamatory statements, falseness, nature and extent of the publication of the statement, malice, rank or social status, the absence of an apology, motive and the general conduct of the defendant.

The conclusion is that you should be careful what you say to others, especially if what you are saying is not true or has the intention to harm/hurt the other person.

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This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)

BALANCING FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND DEFAMATION

Defamation law in South Africa is one of the most debated topics in our legal system. The reason being that South Africa is a democratic country founded on human dignity, equality and freedom of expression, to name just a few. These founding provisions in our constitution, together with the relevant Human Rights provisions, make it difficult to find an equitable balance between these competing rights in defamation cases. Many agree that a free press is an important part of an open and democratic society, but that false, unjustifiable attacks on an individual’s reputation are damaging and wrong. How do our courts find a balance between these competing rights?

What about the constitution?

The relevant section in the Constitution is Section 36, which provides for the limitation of rights in the following circumstances. The first requirement is that the law must be of general application. Secondly, the limitation must be reasonable and justifiable in an open democratic society. To determine when it will be reasonable the court will take certain factors into consideration. These factors include the nature of the right, the importance of the purpose of the limitation, the relationship between the limitation and its purpose, and whether less restrictive means were explored to achieve the purpose.

What have the courts decided?

In the Supreme Court of Appeal case of National Media Ltd and Others v Bogoshi the court adopted the attitude that, although there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact, an incorrect statement of fact is nevertheless inevitable in free debate. The publication in the press of a false, defamatory allegation of fact will not be regarded as unlawful if, upon consideration of all the circumstances of the case, it is found to have been reasonable. When a court considers the reasonableness of the publication it will take into account the nature, extent and tone of the allegations, and “greater latitude” will usually be allowed in respect of political discussion. The Court held that the press should bear the onus of showing that the publication was reasonable under these circumstances.

The consequence of the Bogoshi judgement is that if a newspaper can show that a decision to publish was reasonable and justifiable, it will be able to avoid liability even in circumstances where the statements are false.

This reasoning was developed further in Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele v Mail & Guardian Limited where it was held that justifiability is to be determined by having regard for all relevant circumstances. These include the interest of the public in being informed; the manner of publication; the tone of the material published; the extent of public concern about the information; the reliability of the source; the steps taken to verify the truth of the information; and whether the person defamed has been given the opportunity to comment on the statement before publication. In cases where information is crucial to the public, and is urgent, it may be justifiable to publish without giving an opportunity to comment.

Conclusion

Freedom of expression and defamation are both important parts of South African law. They can both be powerful, but a balance can be maintained between the two, ensuring circumstances to be taken into account, leading to fair judgement.

This article is a general information sheet and should not be used or relied on as legal or other professional advice. No liability can be accepted for any errors or omissions nor for any loss or damage arising from reliance upon any information herein. Always contact your legal adviser for specific and detailed advice. Errors and omissions excepted (E&OE)