They say the truth shall set you free. But some people do not want the truth to come out, such as sexual abusers. They will do anything they can to cover up their crimes, even misuse the legal system to try to intimidate their victims into silence.
Defamation lawsuits against sexual abuse survivors have become common, as the abuser claims their victim is lying and damaging their reputation. Usually, the real purpose of these lawsuits is to frighten the survivor and their family with the prospect of expensive litigation and the possibility, however remote, of having to settle or have the jury order them to pay a large damages amount.
Truth is a defense to both forms of defamation: slander (spoken communication) and liable (written communication). If what you say about your abuser really happened, they should have no cause of action against you. But judges and juries sometimes make mistakes. More importantly, wealthy, powerful individuals and institutions can use their deep financial resources to try to bleed survivors dry by dragging out a baseless libel lawsuit.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to fight back against this tactic. First, as an insured homeowner or renter, you could be entitled to having your attorney’s fees paid for by your insurer.
Also, many states provide full or partial immunity against defamation when the communication is to a government agency, i.e., the police or an investigative agency. Immunity means you cannot be sued based on what you write or say. This is to encourage survivors and their families to report sexual abuse.
Other protected speech
Other protections that your communications might enjoy include:
- Fair report privilege: Discussion or citation of information contained in the public record, such as court filings or a police report, is often immune from a defamation claim.
- Common interest privilege: Sharing information with an individual or organization that has a “common interest” with you can be immune from litigation, though acting with “actual malice” cancels out that possible immunity in some states. Actual malice means deliberately or recklessly saying a falsehood.
- The predator’s fame: When your statement is about a famous person, such as a politician, celebrity or business leader, they must prove actual malice.
- Anti-SLAPP: Many states have laws against SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) defamation suits that give defendants the right to seek a dismissal on the grounds that their statement was a matter of public concern, such as a sexual predator being on the loose.
No survivor should be afraid to tell their story because of a litigation threat. An attorney who regularly represents sexual abuse victims in lawsuits against their abusers and the institutions that protected them can advise you how to handle the threat of a defamation claim.