Libel “Legally” Defined

The following definitions for “libel” are taken from Ballantine’s Law Dictionary (3rd edition), Bouvier’s Law Dictionary (6th edition), Black’s Law Dictionary (2nd edition), and “Webster’s 1828 Dictionary:”



An initial pleading in a suit in admiralty; the pleading whereby litigation is brought into an Admiralty Court [2 AM J2d Adm § 175]. A malicious publication, expressed either in printing, writing, typewriting, or by signs and pictures, tending either to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or the reputation of who is alive, and expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule [33 Am J1st L & S§3].


  1. A malicious defamation expressed either in printing or writing, or by signs or pictures, tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead, with intent to provoke the living; the reputation of one who is alive, and to expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule [Hawk. b. 1, c. 73, s. 1; Wood’s Inst, 444; 4 Bl. Com. 150; 2 Chitty, Cr. Law, 867; Holt on Lib. 73; 5 Co. 125; Salk. 418; Ld. Rgym. 416; 4 T. R. 126; 4 Mass. R. 168; 9 John. 214; 1 Den. Rep. 347; 2 Pick. R. 115; 2 Kent, Com. 13]. It has been defined perhaps with more precision to be a censorious or ridiculous writing, picture or sign made with a malicious or mischievous intent, towards government magistrates or individuals [3 John. Cas. 354; 9 John. R. 215; 5 Binn. 340].
  2. In briefly considering this offense, we will inquire; 1st, By what mode of expression a libel may be conveyed; 2nd, of what kind of defamation it must consist; 3rd, how plainly it must be expressed; 4th, what mode of publication is essential.
  3. 1. The reduction of the slanderous matter to writing, or printing, is the most usual mode of conveying it. The exhibition of a picture, intimating that which in print would be libelous, is equally criminal [2 Camp. 512; 5 Co. 125; 2 Serg. & Rawle 91]. Fixing a gallows at a man’s door, burning him in effigy, or exhibiting him in any ignominious manner, is a libel [Hawk. b. 1, c. 73, s. 2; 11 East, R. 227].
  4. 2. There is perhaps no branch of the law which is so difficult to reduce to exact principles, or to compress within a small compass, as the requisites of a libel. All publications denying the Christian religion to be true [11 Serg. & Rawle, 394; Holt on Libels, 74; 8 Johns R. 290; Vent. 293; Keb. 607] all writings subversive of morality and tending to inflame the passions by indecent language, are indictable at common law [2 St. 790; Holt on Libels, 82; 4 Burr. 2527]. In order to constitute a libel, it is not necessary that anything criminal should be imputed to the party injured; it is enough if the writer has exhibited him in a ludicrous point of view; has pointed him out as an object of ridicule or disgust; has, in short, done that which has a natural tendency to excite him to revenge [2 Wils. 403; Bacon’s Abr. Libel, A 2; 4 Taunt. 355; 3 Camp. 214; Hardw. 470; 5 Binn. 349]. The case of Villars v. Monsley [2 Wils. 403], above cited, was grounded upon the following verses, which were held to be libelous, namely:- “ Old-villers, so strong of brimstone you smell,As if not long since you had got out of hell,But this damnable smell I no longer can bear,

    Therefore I desire you would come no more here;

    You, old stinking; old nasty, old itchy, old toad,

    If you come any more you shall pay for your board,

    You’ll therefore take this as a warning from me,

    And never enter the doors, while they belong to J. P.

– Wilncot, December 4, 1767.”

  1. Libels against the memory of the dead which have a tendency to create a breach of the peace by inciting the friends and relatives of the deceased to avenge the insult of the family, render their authors liable to legal animadversion [5 co. 123; 5 Binn. 281; 2 Chit. Cr. Law, 868; 4 T. R. 186].
  2. 3. If the matter be understood as scandalous, and is calculated to excite ridicule or abhorrence against the party intended, it is libelous, however it may be expressed [5 East, 463; 1 Price, 11, 17; Hob. 215; Chit. Cr. Law, 868; 2 Campb. 512].
  3. 4. The malicious reading of a libel to one or more persons, it being on the shelves in a bookstore, as other books, for sale; and where the defendant directed the libel to be printed, took away some and left others; these several acts have been held to be publications. The sale of each copy; where several copies have been sold, is a distinct publication, and a fresh offense. The publication must be malicious; evidence of the malice may be either express or implied. Express proof is not necessary: for where a man publishes a writing which on the face of it is libelous, the law presumes he does so from that malicious intention which constitutes the offense, and it is unnecessary, on the part of the prosecution, to prove any circumstance from which malice may be inferred. But no allegation, however false and malicious, contained in answers to interrogatories, in affidavits duly made, or any other proceedings, in courts of justice, or petitions to the legislature, are indictable [4 Co. 14; 2 Burr. 807; Hawk. B. 1, c. 73, s. 8; 1 Saund. 131, n. 1; Lev. 240; 2 Chitty’s Cr. Law, 869; 2 Serg. & Rawle, 23]. It is no defense that the matter published is part of a document printed by order of the house of commons [9 A&E. 1].
  4. The publisher of a libel is liable to be punished criminally by indictment [2 Chitty’s Cr. Law, 875] or is subject to an action on the case by the party grieved. Both remedies may be pursued at the same time [Vide generally, Holt on Libels; Starkie on Slander; 1 Harr. Dig. Case, I.; Chit. Cr. L. Index. h. t.; chit. Pr. Index, h. t.].


(as a verb) – In admiralty practice. To proceed against, by filing a libel; to seize under admiralty process, at the commencement of a suit. Also to defame or inure a person’s reputation by a published writing.

(as a noun) – In practice. The initiatory pleading on the part of the plaintiff or complainant in an admiralty or ecclesiastical cause, corresponding to the declaration, bill, or complaint.

In the Scotch law it is the form of the complaint or grounds of the charge on which either a civil action or criminal prosecution takes place [Bell].

In torts. That which is written or printed, and published, calculated to inure the character of another by bringing him into ridicule, hatred, or contempt [Palmer v. Concord, 48 N. H. 211, 97 Am. Dec. 605; Negley v. Farrow, 60 Md. 175, 45 Am. Rep. 715; Weston v. Weston., 83 App. Div. 520, 82 N. Y. Supp. 351; Collins v. Dispatch Pub. Co., 152 Pa. 187, 25 Atl. 546, 34 Am. St. Rep. 636; Hartford v. State, 96 Ind. 463, 49 Am. Rep. 185].

Libel is a false and unprivileged publication by writing, printing, picture, effigy, or other fixed representation to the eye which exposes any person to hatred, contempt, ridicule, or obloquy, or which causes him to be shunned or avoided, or which has a tendency to injure him in his occupation [Civ. Code Cal. § 45].

A libel is a false and malicious defamation of another, expressed in print or writing or pictures or signs, tending to injure the reputation of an individual, and exposing him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule. The publication of the libelous matter is essential to recovery [Code. Ga. 1882, § 2974].

A libel is a malicious defamation, expressed either by writing, printing, or by signs or pictures, or the like, tending to blacken the memory of one who is dead, or to impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation, or publish the natural or alleged defects, or one who is alive, and thereby to expose him to public hatred, contempt, or ridicule [Pen. Code Cal. § 248; Rev. Code Iowa 1880, § 4097; Bac. Abr. Tit. “Libel;” 1 Hawk. P. C. 1, 73, § 1; Com. v. Clap, 4 Mass. 168, 3 Am. Dec. 212; Clark v. Binney, 2 Pick. (Mass.) 115; Ryckman v. Delavan, 25 Wend. (N.Y.) 198; Root v. King, 7 Cow. (N. Y.) 620.

  • A libel is a censorious or ridiculing writing, picture or sign made with a mischievous intent [State v. Farley, 4 McCord (S. C.), 317; People v. Croswell, 3 Johns. Cas. (N.Y.) 354; Steele v. Southwick, 9 Johns. Cas. (N.Y.) 215; McCorkle v. Binns, 5 Bin. (Pa.) 348; 6 Am. Dec. 420].
  • Any publication the tendency of which is to degrade or injure another person, or to bring him into contempt, ridicule, or hatred, or which accuses him of a crime punishable bu law, or of an act odious and disgraceful in society, is a libel [Dexter v. Spear, 4 Mason, 115, Fed. Cas. No. 3,867; White v. Nicholls, 3 How. 291, 11 L. Ed. 591].
  • A libel is a publication, without justification or lawful excuse, of words calculated to injure the reputation of another, and expose him to hatred or contempt [Whitney v. Janesville Gazette, 5 Biss. 330, Fed. Cas. No. 17,590].

Everything, written or printed, which reflects on the character of another, and is published without lawful justification or excuse, is a libel, whatever the intention may have been [O’Brien v. Clement, 15 Mees. & W. 435].

  • Criminal libel: A libel which is punishable criminally: one which tends to excite a breach of the peace [Moody v. State, 94 Ala. 42, 10 South. 670; State v. Shaffner, 2 Pennewill (Del.) 171, 44 Atl. 620; People v. Stokes, 30 Abb. N. C. 200, 24 N. Y. Supp. 727].
  • Libel of accusation: In Scotch law, the instrument which contains the charge against a person accused of a crime. Libels are of two kinds, namely, indictments and criminal letters.
  • Seditions libel: In English law, a written or printed document containing seditious matter or published with a seditious intention, the latter term being defined as “an intention to bring into hatred or contempt, or to excite disaffection against, the king or the government and constitution as by law established, or either house of parliament, or the administration of justice, or to excite British subjects to attempt otherwise than by lawful means the alteration of any matter in church or state by law established, or to promote feelings of ill will and hostility between different classes.” [Dicey. Const. (4th Ed.) 231, 232 – see Black, Const. Law (3rd Ed.), p. 654]



1. A defamatory writing, L. libellus, famosus. Hence, the epithet being omitted, libel expresses the same thing. Any book, pamphlet, writing or picture, containing representations, maliciously made or published, tending to bring a person into contempt, or expose him to public hatred and derision. The communication of such defamatory writing to a single person, is considered in law a publication. It is immaterial with respect to the essence of a libel, whether the matter of it is true or false, since the provocation and not the falsity is the thing to be punished criminally. But in a civil action, a libel must appear to be false, as well as scandalous.

In a more extensive sense, any blasphemous, treasonable or immoral writing or picture made public, is a libel, and punishable by law.

2. In the civil law, and in courts of admiralty, a declaration or charge in writing exhibited in court, particularly against a ship or goods, for violating the laws of trade or of revenue.

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