Libel is the act of publishing unflattering lies about someone else. These cases usually stay in the domain of civil courts, where the judge can order the alleged libeler to pay damages and print a retraction. But many people don’t know that libel can also be a crime carrying incarceration.
An experienced Las Vegas criminal defense lawyer may be able to negotiate a libel charge down to a lesser offense or full dismissal without having to go to trial at all. To read more about Nevada libel law including the definition, possible penalties and potential defenses, scroll down . . . .
The legal definition of “libel” in Las Vegas, Nevada, is “a malicious defamation, expressed by printing, writing, signs, pictures or the like, tending to blacken the memory of the dead, or to impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation, or to publish the natural defects of a living person or persons, or community of persons, or association of persons, and thereby to expose them to public hatred, contempt or ridicule.” (NRS 200.510)
In short, the Nevada crime of libel occurs when all of the following conditions are met:
- the defendant publishes untruths about someone else
- the defendant acted intentionally
- these untruths cast the person in a negative light
Note that orally speaking lies does not qualify as libel, though it may expose the speaker to civil liability for slander.
Libel can occur through any publishing medium such as newspapers, books, billboards, websites, social media such as Facebook or Twitter, and even emails. Also note that editors who knowingly publish libel face the same criminal liability as the writer(s) who fabricated the lies to begin with.
Nevada prosecutors very rarely press charges for criminal libel because the First Amendment often protects the defendant’s speech however unflattering. Victims of libel usually resort to a civil lawsuit instead.
Criminal libel versus Civil libel
The vast majority of Nevada libel cases are litigated in civil court without the D.A. ever filing charges. This is because libel is much easier to prove in civil court than in criminal court:
In criminal court, the prosecution has the burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant maliciously defamed the victim, which is an extremely high standard. This is in contrast to civil court, where the plaintiff only has to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the defendant’s negligence led to the libel.
Therefore Nevada prosecutors tend not to pursue criminal libel cases unless the circumstances are very serious or high profile. Note that a person may face both civil and criminal prosecution for the same libel incident. Please see our page on filing a defamation lawsuit in Nevada for more insight into civil defamation.
Libel vs. Extortion
Extortion is another name for blackmail. It occurs when someone threatens to accuse someone else of a crime, expose their secret, or publish libel about them in exchange for monetary gain.
Therefore the Nevada crime of extortion is a more serious crime than libel because it’s done with the intent to receive money or other valuables in return. Extortion may encompass libel or other forms of defamation, such as slander. Extortion is punished as a felony whereas libel is punished as a gross misdemeanor or misdemeanor.
The Las Vegas crime of libel if often a difficult charge for the prosecution to prove because defamation is very subjective. The following are typical defenses to libel in Nevada:
- The information was truthful. Truth is a complete defense to libel in Las Vegas. If a defense attorney can show that the defendant’s comments were accurate, then he/she is not liable for libel.
- The information was not malicious. The Nevada offense of libel punishes only “malicious” defamations that hurt the alleged victim’s reputation. If the defendant’s comments were not negative, chances are good his/her libel charges will be dropped.
- No knowledge of the libel. Editors are liable for any libel published in their newspapers, etc., unless they didn’t know about it and ran a retraction as soon as they found out about it. So as long as the prosecutor can’t prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the editor-approved the publication of the libelous material, the case should be dismissed.
Alleged violations of Las Vegas libel law under NRS 200.510 are prosecuted as a gross misdemeanor in Nevada. The punishment includes:
- up to 364 days in jail, and/or
- up to $2,000 in fines
Related crimes (NRS 200.550; NRS 200.560)
Threatening someone with the publication of libel about that person or his/her family is a gross misdemeanor in Nevada. Likewise, offering to prevent the publication of libel in order to extort money is also a gross misdemeanor. The sentences for these offenses include:
- up to 364 days in jail, and/or
- up to $2,000 in fines
Finally, it’s a crime merely to be the “middleman” between a writer fabricating libelous material and the editor publishing it: Anyone who willfully delivers any defamatory statement about a person or corporation to an editor or publisher may be prosecuted for a misdemeanor. The penalty for a misdemeanor in Nevada is:
- up to 6 months in jail, and/or
- up to $1,000 in fines
Note that civil penalties for libel in Nevada may include astronomical money damages and a court order to print a retraction of the allegedly libelous material.
Charged with libel? Call a lawyer . . . .
If you’ve been arrested for libel under NRS 200.510, our Las Vegas criminal defense lawyers may be able to get your charges lowered to less serious offenses or even thrown out altogether. And if necessary they’ll take the case to trial to fight for your innocence. Sometimes they represent plaintiffs in civil libel cases as well.