Civil suits for defamation of character can be brought if a plaintiff can establish that a statement was made about him that was published, false, injurious and unprivileged, according to Nolo. Specific laws vary by state, but these four elements are generally accepted as necessary across the United States. Defamation is defined as a statement that hurts someone's reputation. A written harmful statement is libel, a spoken one is slander.
According to Nolo, in a defamation suit, a statement consists of something stated about the plaintiff in speech, writing, pictures or gestures.
A published statement is something that was made available to a third party, such as through television or the Internet, or in gossip or loud conversation. Nolo states that the published statement must be false. Malicious comments that are not false do not count as defamation. Opinions also do not count as defamation, since they cannot be proven as false.
Nolo defines an injurious statement as one that causes demonstrable damage to the plaintiff. For example, a statement that causes the plaintiff to lose work or be shunned by neighbors, friends and family is considered injurious. An unprivileged statement is one that is not protected from defamation claims by law. For example, testimony in a court proceeding is considered privileged and cannot be used as a basis for a defamation suit, even if it is published, false and injurious.