Dear Mirror Lawyer, I am a student in a public university in Ghana. One of our class discussions on our class WhatsApp platform got heated and after I made my submissions, another student posted, “Annabelle, no one will take a prostitute seriously. We know you.”
I was furious and after telling him off, I thought that was the end of the matter. However, some of my colleagues informed me that there were rumours going round that my good grades were only because I was sleeping with lecturers for grades.
In fact, a reputable company came for a job fair to recruit and in the presence of their representatives, a classmate of mine asked if prostitutes were allowed in the company.
I was so embarrassed. I am even at the point of deferring the course because I cannot take it any longer. This classmate has lied about me, and I am defenceless. He has ruined my reputation. Do I have any rights in situations like this?
Dear Annabelle, I am sorry to hear about the damage to your reputation. You have the right to bring an action for defamation against your classmate. Defamation in essence is the act of making an untrue statement about a person which negatively affects that person’s reputation.
There are two types of defamation: slander and libel. Slander and libel are basically the two ways in which defamation can occur. Libel refers to the written defamatory statements such as statements made in books, newspapers, letters or any other permanent form of communication, such as your WhatsApp platform.
Slander on the other hand is a defamatory statement which is spoken. It is therefore not permanent and that is what differentiates it from libel.
To establish defamation, you must show that the statement is derogatory and unacceptable within your community, that the statement was made about you or you were the one mentioned in what was said or written and that the statement was communicated to the hearing or reading by third parties apart from you and the person who made the statement.
This is what is known as publication in the law on defamation. Thus, for a statement to be defamatory, there must be a publication without any basis designed to injure a person’s reputation by exposing that person to hatred, contempt or ridicule among right thinking members of the society where the person is.
Thus if a phone call is made by one person to another and such derogatory remarks were made on the phone to the hearing of the other person alone, there will be no defamation because there was no publication to a third person. But if, to the knowledge of the person making the statement, the phone is placed on speaker to the hearing of others, the situation will be different.
In the same way if an email is sent by A to B alone making such derogatory remarks against B, there will be no defamation because no publication was made to a third person unless others were copied on the mail. In all such cases, the law will treat the derogatory remarks as mere vituperation or insults.
The statement made about you on the class WhatsApp platform that you practice prostitution is a serious and an unacceptable statement to make about a woman in the Ghanaian society.
It is a kind of statement which will affect the reputation of any young student in the eyes of her classmates and potential employees.
The derogatory statement was indeed made concerning you because your name was mentioned so everyone on your class WhatsApp platform knew it was you who was being referred to.
The statement was also published in the sense that, the communication on the general class WhatsApp platform was seen and read by at least one other person apart from you and the person making the statement. If the statement proves to be false, you can bring an action in court against the classmate who made the statement for defamation.
However, bear in mind that in any action for defamation, the defendant has a defence we call justification if the statement is in fact the truth.
By justification, the defendant is admitting making the statement and publishing it but can prove that the statement is true. All the best.