What Is the Legal Definition of ''Libel'' In California ?
Libel is statutorily defined as follows:
"Libel is a false and unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, effigy, or other fixed representation to the eye, which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which cause him or her to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injury him in his or her occupation." (Civ. Code, 45.)
It is an essential element of defamation that the publication be of a false statement of fact rather than opinion. (Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974) 418 U.S. 323, 339-340 94 S. Ct. 2997, 3006-3007, 41 L. Ed. 2d 789; Gregory v. McDonnell Douglas Corp. (1976) 17 Cal. 3d 596, 600 131 Cal. Rptr. 641, 552 P.2d 425; Campanelli v. Regents of University of California, supra, 44 Cal. App. 4th at p. 578.)
Nevertheless, a statement of opinion may be actionable " '. . . if it implies the allegation of undisclosed defamatory facts as the basis for the opinion.' " (Okun v. Superior Court (1981) 29 Cal. 3d 442, 451-452 175 Cal. Rptr. 157, 629 P.2d 1369.)
Thus, there is no wholesale defamation exemption for anything that might be labeled an opinion.
If a statement of opinion implies a knowledge of facts which may lead to a defamatory conclusion, the implied facts must themselves be true.
Even if the publisher of the opinion states the facts upon which he or she bases this opinion, if those facts are either incorrect or incomplete, or if the person's assessment of them is erroneous, the statement of opinion may still imply a false assertion of fact.
Simply couching such statements in terms of opinion does not dispel these implications, and such statements may be actionable.
In such a case, the dispositive question is whether a reasonable factfinder could conclude the published statements imply an assertion of defamatory fact. If so, the defendant must prove the fact is true.
Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. (1990) 497 U.S. 1, 18-20 110 S. Ct. 26952705-2707, 111 L. Ed. 2d 1;
Okun v. Superior Court, supra, 29 Cal. 3d at pp. 451-452;
Copp v. Paxton (1996) 45 Cal. App. 4th 829, 837 52 Cal. Rptr. 2d 831;
Moyer v. Amador Valley J. Union High School Dist. (1990) 225 Cal. App. 3d 720, 724 275 Cal. Rptr. 494.