California Defamation law is not as simple as many lawyers and other people may have you believe. There are several elements necessary to prove a cause of action for defamation, and one of the most overlooked elements is publication.
Publication is a term of art. This means that it has a specific legal meaning. A statement is deemed "published" if the statement has been communicated to a third party, whether orally or in writing. For example, if John Doe comes up to you and says that you’re a crook and that you’ve been convicted of murder and no one else hears it, the publication element is not met. But this is the easy scenario.
What happens if someone merely passes along the alleged defamatory statement? Are they liable to the same extent as the original person who published the statement? The answer is yes.
The law calls this "republishing" and will hold the republisher just as liable as the original publisher. So let’s take the example from above: suppose someone overhears John Doe and then relays the statement to Joe Shmoe’s employer, Bill Breaker. In this case, the person who relayed the information to Bill Breaker would be liable to you in the same way that John Doe would be liable to you.
Publication can become more complicated and I’ll discuss another uncommon wrinkle in the next post.
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