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In 21st century America the laws governing libel, slander and defamation are wholly separate even through they overlap in substantial areas, rather than there being a single law covering all three. Is this merely because this is the way that it was under British rule and the laws haven't been combined, or have there been attempts to combine them which have been rejected by the court system for citable reasons?

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US Law

Combining the traditionally separate common-law torts of libel and slander would probably be a matter not for the court system, but for the legislature, and these are matters of sate law in the US, and vary from one state to another. Many states have not codified the law of defamation by statute, and one must check court cases in each state to find the particular rules that apply in that state.

As Nolo's page on "Defamation Law Made Simple" says:

"Defamation of character" is a catch-all term for any statement that hurts someone's reputation. Written defamation is called "libel," while spoken defamation is called "slander."

To the best of my knowledge, there is no US state that has three separate torts, "libel", "slander", and "defamation". Some states, such as Illinois, have combined libel and slander into a single tort of defamation, others have not.

Traditionally, in a slander case the plaintiff must prove actual damages, whereas damage could be presumed in a libel case. (see the LII page on "Slander" for confirmation of this.) States that have preserved the distinction retain this difference in many cases. That is one reason why some states have not combined them. Another is legislative inertia: if the existing laws are working well enough, why go to the effort of rewriting them? When the law of defamation has not been codified, the traditional reluctance of common law courts to change form where there is no significant change of substance also works against combining the torts.

See also the Wikipedia page on "United States defamation law"

Specific State Laws

See "State Law: Defamation" from the Digital Media law Project for case citations in many US states.

Non-US Law

In some other common-law countries, the difference has also been preserved, probably for similar reasons. Again it will be a matter for the individual legislatures, not the courts, to combine them or leave them separate.

See also the Wikipedia article on "Defamation"

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  • I'm not sure I agree on the first sentence. I think that in most places, these are still common-law torts, rather than statutory offenses. That leaves their interpretation and development pretty squarely in the hands of the courts, though the legislature could of course make its own pronouncements.
    – bdb484
    Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 16:51
  • @bdb484 On further research i find you are correct that many US states have not codified defamation. I have edited my answer accordingly. What do you think of it now? Commented Oct 2, 2021 at 17:27

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