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If Bob publicly says "Rob killed Alice", Rob could sue (and win) Bob for defamation — unless Rob gets convicted for that crime.

But if Bob instead says "Rob allegedly killed Alice" then Rob would have no defamation case — at least so long as Rob has been charged with that crime. This is how the media reports ongoing criminal cases.

Does that magic of the word "allegedly" disappear when Rob has not been charged? In other words, can Bob always avoid defamation liability just by saying "I allege Rob did that" instead of just "Rob did that", or does that work only when Rob is being prosecuted?

(Any jurisdiction)

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  • Defamation law is very different in different jurisdictions, e.g. between Germany and the U.S.
    – ohwilleke
    Jul 8, 2021 at 21:34
  • @ohwilleke That's okay, no answer is expected to address them all. Just one, tagged accordingly.
    – Greendrake
    Jul 9, 2021 at 3:42
  • Allegedly it does.
    – Mark
    Jul 11, 2021 at 3:06

2 Answers 2

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If someone has actually alleged that Rob killed Alice, then the statement is true and therefore it cannot be defamatory. But if nobody has in fact accused Rob of killing Alice, then the statement is false. It also damages Rob's reputation, so it is defamatory.

If the speaker wants to express an opinion about whether Rob killed Alice, "allegedly" isn't the right word. It's also worth noting that "allegedly" isn't the same thing as "I allege."

News organizations use "allegedly" both to avoid the possibility of defaming the accused and to avoid prejudicing potential jurors. Before anyone is charged, it may be more precise to describe suspects as being suspected of committing the crime rather than as allegedly having committed it.

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    Police generally will refer to someone who isn't yet a suspect but may have some interaction with the crime as "a person of interest" as do the media. This keeps from defamation from reporting that such individuals are even "suspects" when they might not be involved at all.
    – hszmv
    Jul 9, 2021 at 11:42
  • This answer is hilariously wrong.
    – bdb484
    Nov 9, 2023 at 12:40
  • @bdb484 please explain why you think it is wrong or post your own answer. Thanks.
    – phoog
    Nov 13, 2023 at 18:35
  • (1) Because it's not the law.
    – bdb484
    Nov 13, 2023 at 18:59
  • (2) Because I've seen courts reject this theory many, many times.
    – bdb484
    Nov 13, 2023 at 18:59
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There is no magic about the word "allegedly". "Rob allegedly killed Alice" simply means "Someone said that Rob killed Alice". It implies that the person reporting this is not claiming that it is true or false, but just reporting what someone else has said.

If in fact some person did say that, such a statement is true, and quite probably not defamatory. However, if the original claim is unreliable, and it is being repeated in a way that serves to lend it credibility, it could still be considered defamation by implication. If Rob has been charged, or accused by a credible source, or multiple such sources, reporting on that accusation will normally not itself be defamation.

Saying "I allege that Rob killed Alice" is just saying that "I claim that Rob killed Alice" and might well be defamatory if Rob did not in fact do so.

Again there is nothing magic about any particular word here. It is the overall meaning of the statement that makes it defamatory or not, as that meaning would be reasonably understood by readers or listeners. Any statement that will be understood as carrying a defamatory meaning may be an act of defamation.

There is also nothing magic about Rob having been formally charged. Such a charge is a fact that can be freely reported on. Widespread or credible claims that Rob is the killer are also facts, and can also be reported. But if the only source is an anonymous vid on YouTube, with no supporting evidence, that is not a credible claim. Reporting it in a way that makes it sound far more credible than it is may cause people to believe the false accusation, and thus be defamatory. Again the overall meaning of the statement is important.

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  • Correction suggestion: replace all "Bob" with "Rob" because it's Rob who allegedly kills and would be defamed. Bob is the one to defame.
    – Greendrake
    Jul 9, 2021 at 0:13
  • @Greendrake Thanks. I had misread the question. I now use Rob for the person accused. Jul 9, 2021 at 14:07

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