Examples of defamation include spoken false statements called slander and written false statements called libel. In addition to being false, defamatory statements must have harmful intent. In the United States, defamation is not a crime, but a type of civil wrong called a tort.
Making a false, harmful statement about another individual is usually not enough to meet the minimum legal criteria for defamation. Most states require that a defaming statement is published before allowing legal action. This legal definition of the term "published" differs from the everyday use of the word, and it means that someone other than the person making the statement and its target must have heard, read or seen the statement. This prevents frivolous lawsuits for potentially false statements made during arguments or other emotionally intense situations.
Having a defamation case heard in court also requires that the statement was made in an unprivileged context. Certain situations, such as giving testimony in a court of law, serving on a jury and speaking in a legislative meeting are legally privileged situations, and people cannot be sued for defamation in these situations even if they make a false, hurtful and published statement. However, knowingly making a false statement in these situations makes a person liable for a charge of perjury, which, unlike defamation, is a criminal offense.