Colorado's Defamation Laws

Defamation occurs in Colorado when a person makes:

  • a false or derogatory statement of fact
  • about another person
  • to a third party.

There are different types of defamation and each has its own standards and rules that must be followed.

Slander vs. Libel

Slander is defamation that occurs in spoken form. Libel occurs in written form.

Both require some untrue or derogatory statement.

Defamation per se

Certain untrue statements are so harmful that Colorado deems them to be harmful as a matter of law. There is no requirement that the injured party proves money damages unless that person is a public official, in which case actual damages must be proven in order to win the case.

Defamation per quod

If it is not defamation per se, it is defamation per quod. This includes all libel and slander cases that do not fit the per se categories.

Below, our Colorado personal injury attorneys address frequently asked questions about defamation claims and the injuries you may have suffered:

Defamation

1. What is defamation under Colorado law?

Defamation occurs when an individual in Colorado makes:

  • a false or derogatory statement of fact
  • about another person
  • to a third party.[1]

Different types of defamation have their own legal standards for proof in order to receive damages.

2. What is the difference between libel and slander in Colorado?

Two versions of defamation exist, depending on how the false or derogatory statement is made. The difference between the two can have an impact on how the lawsuit will proceed.

2.1 What is slander?

Slander is defamation that occurs in spoken form. It occurs when:

  • one person says something untrue or derogatory
  • about another person
  • to a third party and
  • "publishes" that information.2

Example: Antonio is jealous of his coworker Paul. Paul was recently promoted to a job that both he and Antonio had been competing for. In a jealous rage, Antonio begins lying to his other coworkers that Paul slept with his boss to get the promotion. The rumor spreads quickly, making it outside of the company, impacting the reputation of Paul, his boss, and the company. It also creates problems at home for Paul and his wife.

It is not necessarily enough to make the statement to one other person, and then it goes nowhere else. However, in this day and age of technology, slanderous statements are often shared by video on:

  • Twitter;
  • Facebook;
  • Instagram;
  • Blogs; and
  • other websites.

2.2 What is libel?

Libel is when the statement occurs in written form. It occurs when:

  • one person writes something untrue or derogatory
  • about another person
  • to a third party and
  • "publishes" that information.3

Example: Lorraine is angry about the service she received at a local Denver restaurant. To "get back" at them, she posts a Yelp review online that falsely says the restaurant was filthy when she ate there and that she observed cockroaches scurrying on the floor. She also complains that the chef told her to "go to hell" when she sent back her steak, despite the fact that the chef never made the statement.

Libel can also include other "written" forms of communications, such as:

  • cartoons;
  • signs or pictures;
  • television and radio broadcasts;
  • email; and
  • internet and social media postings.

3. What is defamation per se?

Some false statements are so wrong that Colorado has decided they are harmful as a matter of law. When this applies, there is not a requirement that the victim prove monetary harm.

These untrue statements include:

  • a person committed a crime (when he or she did not);
  • a person is unfit to practice their profession or trade;
  • a person has a sexually transmitted disease; or
  • a person is impotent or unchaste.4

However, if the injured person is a public official, he or she must still prove actual damages in order to win the case.

Example: Clyde was recently dumped by his girlfriend, Kim. Kim is now dating Joe, who she met at a local bar. Clyde posts on Facebook that Kim is HIV positive and has been "slutting around giving AIDS to people." He also verbally tells this information to Kim's friends and coworkers, causing her significant distress and harming her reputation as a respected Kindergarten teacher. Clyde has committed libel and slander against her, but because the defamation is per se, Kim will not have to prove special damages in order to sue Clyde.5

4. What is defamation per quod?

When defamation does not fit into the per se categories, then it is per quod.

When this is the case, a person must plead and prove special damages in order for the case to be allowed to go to trial.6

4.1 What are "special damages" under Colorado law?

Special damages are:

  • specific monetary losses
  • that a plaintiff suffers
  • as a result of the defamation.8

Once these are proven, a plaintiff can go after other non-monetary damages, such as:

  • pain and suffering;
  • emotional distress; and
  • impairment to reputation.

5. What is considered "publication" under Colorado law?

"Publication" is a required element of any lawsuit for defamation in Colorado. To constitute publication, the defamatory or untrue statements must:

  • have been communicated to
  • and understood by
  • some third party.8

Each separate time a person publishes a defamatory statement is considered a separate violation of the law, and each is compensable as its own claim.9

6. Does it matter if the plaintiff is a public figure?

Who the plaintiff is matters in a defamation lawsuit. If the plaintiff is a public figure, a different standard applies to the case before he or she can obtain damages.

The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1964 that a public figure must prove:

  • that the untrue statement was made
  • against the public figure
  • with actual malice.10

The thought behind this is that public figures must accept public criticism, even when it is false or inaccurate, except when the falsehood was done to deliberately cause harm to the public figure.

6.1 Who may be considered a public figure?

Public figures could include, but are not limited to:

  • newscasters;
  • politicians;
  • authors;
  • musicians;
  • judges;
  • police officers;
  • church leaders; and
  • social media stars.

Some "public figures" may only temporarily have that status based on a particular issue that brings him or her to the front of an issue, such as a particular protester who leads a large group.

7. What about a person's right to free speech?

Even the right to free speech is not absolute.

The United States Supreme Court has ruled that there is no constitutional protection for false statements.

8. Are there defenses to a defamation lawsuit in Colorado?

Certain defenses can be raised against a lawsuit for a false statement, such as:

  • the statement that was made was true;11
  • the statement was never published;
  • the statement was privileged (legally protected);
  • the statement was believed to be true at the time it was made (not always a defense);
  • the statement was not made negligently;
  • the defendant never made any defamatory statements about the plaintiff.

Depending on the facts of the particular case, different defenses may apply. An experienced Colorado attorney can help you know which, if any, defenses apply to your case.

9. What damages can I recover for my case?

If a person is successful in his or her case, the party can recover money damages.

There are three main types of damages that a person can recover:

  1. Special Damages: These are damages to the person's trade, property, business, profession, or occupation.
  2. General Damages: These include less easily defined damages based on a person's lost reputation, shame, pain and suffering, and hurt feelings.
  3. Punitive Damages: Punitive damages are not available in every case, but they are designed to punish the defendant for his or her actions.

10. How do I file a claim for defamation?

To file a claim for defamation, a person who has been wronged should contact an experienced defamation attorney to file a complaint.

A complaint is:

  • a legal document
  • that sets forth the basic details and allegations
  • of the alleged defamation case.

The case will then proceed with the defendant's answer, and the attorneys will conduct "discovery" to learn more about the facts of the case.

11. What is the statute of limitations on this type of case?

If you intend to file a case for defamation, the case must be brought within 1 year of:

  • the date the false statement was made; or
  • the date the person knows, or should have known, about the false statements.12
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Call us for help...

For questions about defamation cases in Colorado or to confidentially discuss your case with one of our skilled Colorado personal injury attorneys, do not hesitate to contact us. (For cases in California or Nevada, please see our pages in California defamation laws and Nevada defamation laws).

We represent clients in and around Denver, Colorado Springs, Aurora, Fort Collins, Lakewood, and several nearby cities.


Legal References:

  1. 7A COPRAC 32:2 (Defamation-In general).
  2. 7A COPRAC 32:9 (Libel and slander).
  3. Same as 2. ("Libel originally described written defamation, but now also encompasses, cartoons, signs or pictures, television and radio broadcasts, e-mail, and postings on the Internet.").
  4. 7A COPRAC 32:10 (Slander per se-no damages required).
  5. 7A COPRAC 32:12 (Slander per se-loathsome disease); Prosser & Keeton 112 (5th ed. 1984).
  6. 7A COPRAC 32:15 (Slander per quod-special damages required).
  7. Brown v. Barnes, 133 Colo. 411, 296 P.2d 739 (1956).
  8. 7A COPRAC 32:18 (Publication).
  9. Lininger v. Knight, 123 Colo. 213, 226 P.2d 809 (1951); Corporon v. Safeway Stores, Inc., 708 P.2d 1385, 38 Empl. Prac. Dec. (CCH) P 35711 (Colo. App. 1985).
  10. New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S. Ct. 710, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686, 1 Media L. Rep. (BNA) 1527, 95 A.L.R.2d 1412 (1964).
  11. 7A COPRAC 32:39 (Additional defenses-truth) (Truth is a complete defense in all actions for defamation. Defamatory statements are presumed false, and a defendant has the burden to prove they are substantially true.)
  12. CRS 13-80-103 (General limitation of actions--one year).

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