The Fine Line Between A Warning and Slander

As a landlord, you probably want to warn other property owners about non-paying, irresponsible or otherwise undesirable tenants. Social media sites offer a convenient platform to share your concerns with a lot of people. Unfortunately, they could also put you in danger of committing libel.
It's important to know how to distinguish the differences between posting a warning and spreading a libel. If you don't, a tenant could sue and win a court case that will cost you a lot of time and money.

What Is the Difference Between Slander and Libel?
Slander and libel are two closely related topics that a lot of people get confused. Slander refers to a transitory defamation of character, such as verbally spreading lies about one of your tenants. Slander becomes libel when you publish your accusations.
There is some disagreement about whether social media posts are libelous or slanderous. Most courts consider social media posts a form of speech rather than publication, so false and defamatory posts would be slander. The specifics of a case, however, could put you at risk of libel instead.

Slander Contains False Information
The most important thing to remember about slanderous statements is that they must contain false information.
That may sound very straightforward, but it can get quite confusing in real world situations. Consider the following statement:
Mike Smith never pays his rent on time.
A landlord may think that this is true, but it probably is not unless Mike Smith has never paid his rent on time. Not even once.
To avoid slander, you could write that Mike Smith failed to pay his rent on time four times last year. Assuming that you have proof that four payments were made late, you should be safe from slander and libel.
When you make unsubstantiated generalizations, you open yourself to a lawsuit.

You Should Have Known the Statement was False
In a court case, it often becomes difficult proving what someone does and does not know. This makes it necessary for courts to consider what people should have known. If there is a reasonable expectation that you should have known your statement was false, then you could be held accountable.
Here's an example of a potentially slanderous statement:
Mike Smith never pays his rent on time.
If Mike Smith did pay his rent on time, at least occasionally, then you may have committed defamation by posting this online.

Your Statement Causes Injury
This is perhaps the most difficult aspect of using social media to warn other landlords about troublesome tenants. You want to tell them so that they will not have to deal with someone who frequently pays late and causes other problems. Reaching that goal, however, could be seen as causing the tenant injury.
If your post prevents a former tenant from finding a place to live, then you could be sued for slander or libel. If it has no effect, then you are probably safe.
Keep in mind that the injury only matters when you post inaccurate information. If your post is completely accurate, then you are almost certainly protected from losing a lawsuits.

Stay Mindful When Posting Online
Social media sites make it easy to accidentally spread false information about tenants. You may think that you are just blowing off steam, but those posts can have negative repercussions on your life.
It's best to stay mindful when using social media. Some guidelines that should help you avoid a lawsuit include:

  • Avoid using the tenant's name
  • Do not make generalizations
  • Do not make statements that you cannot prove are completely accurate

Perhaps best of all, you shouldn't post when annoyed or upset. If you feel compelled to write about someone online, take some time to calm down. You're more likely to make libelous or slanderous remarks while you're upset.

POSTED September 15 2015 9:58 AM

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