Defamation 



Someone has written unflattering and untrue things about me online. What can I do about it?

Publishing a false statement about someone which damages that person’s reputation is called defamation.

If the statements have caused you serious emotional distress, you may be able to get help under the Harmful Digital Communications Act. You can find out more on our Bullying page.

If your complaint is with a New Zealand news media provider, you can make a complaint to: 

Depending on the situation, you might also consider taking legal action against the person responsible for publishing the statements. More about this is in the next question.

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Can I sue someone for publishing lies about me which are hurting my reputation? 

Legal action is an option if you have been a victim of defamation. If you are taking legal action you need to file your claim within two years of the publication of the defamatory statements (if you can prove you were unaware of the defamatory material until later, you will have 2 years from that time). 

You would need to prove that:

  • you can be identified as the person the statements are about 
  • the statements were defamatory (they were untrue and have damaged your reputation)
  • the statements were published (communicated to one or more other people e.g. by way of a news article, book, online social media, emailing or talking to people)

You don’t have to prove that you’ve suffered any specific loss as a result of the defamation (unless you are a ‘body corporate’ i.e. an organisation).

The liable person or people (i.e. the person or people you are taking legal action against) can include anyone involved in passing the information on, for example: 

  • a newspaper which publishes a defamatory article;
  • someone who receives a defamatory email and sends it on to others; 
  • an internet service provider (ISP) hosting a site which contains defamatory statements.

If you win the case you could, for example, get compensation (plus court costs) and/or a retraction of the statement.

It’s best to get legal advice if you’re thinking of going down this path. Your lawyer may be able to help you to resolve the issue without going to court. You also need to bear in mind that taking legal action can be costly and time consuming. There’s useful information about taking legal action over defamation in the Media Law Journal, and also on Defamation Update.

If the defamatory material was published overseas you can still take legal action against the liable person. You can also sue a third party online publisher (e.g. the owner of a Facebook page, an Internet Service Provider) if they knew about the defamatory comments and did not remove them within a reasonable time.

Note that if the defamation has occurred in a workplace situation (for example if your employer emails defamatory comments about you to your colleagues), then an alternative solution is to raise a personal grievance – which is likely to be less costly than a defamation claim. More about raising a personal grievance is on our Personal issues in the workplace page.

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I’ve been accused of defamation. What defences are available to me?

If someone wants to sue you for defamation, they have to show that you 'published' statements about them which are both untrue and which have damaged their reputation (read the previous question for more information).

You might have a good case for defence if:

  • you can prove the statements were true or
  • you can prove that the statements were of your honest opinion (dependent on how you worded your statements) or
  • you are entitled to make these statements because you have 'absolute privilege' or 'qualified privilege'.

Examples of absolute privilege include what an MP says in Parliament, or what a judge, lawyer or witness says in court.

Examples of qualified privilege include reports of court proceedings or in crime investigations.

We recommend you seek legal advice if you are being sued for defamation.

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Someone has figured out my identity on an online game, and has been leaving hurtful and untrue messages which all participants can read. Is there anything I can do?

Most online games have a code of conduct which players should abide by, as well as a process for reporting a breach of the code of conduct (such as posting hurtful or abusive messages). Your first step could be to find out what the report process is for the online game and follow it to make a complaint.
 
You can also read the answer to the first question, for general information about dealing with instances of defamation. You might also find useful information on our Bullying page.

If the statements made by the other person have made you concerned for your safety, you know the identity of the person who has been making them and they are in New Zealand, you could apply to the District Court for a restraining order which makes it unlawful for that person to continue leaving such messages. You can read more about this on our Harassment page.