The law does not follow the children’s rhyme. Instead, words can hurt just like sticks and stones, and when they do they can lead to lawsuits. Courts have recognized a person’s reputation does have value and that sometimes words can cause damage to that reputation.
Last week, two Seattle police officers involved in a fatal shooting filed a lawsuit against Seattle City Councilmember Kshama Sawant for alleged statements she made before the officers were cleared of wrongdoing by an inquest jury. In the complaint, the officers allege that Sawant pronounced the officers “murderers” and referred to the shooting as “racial profiling.” The president of the Seattle King County NAACP also made statements about the shooting, but he is not a defendant in the lawsuit.
The case highlights the fact that employees can bring defamation claims in the employment context, but it also raises several important legal issues some of which are discussed in the Seattle Times article that reported the lawsuit.
In the employment context, there are often issues about whether an employer’s statement about its employee was false, and whether the communication was protected by a privilege (which depends on the context in which the statement was made). In this case, the outcome may well depend on the legal standard that is applied to determine fault. This in turn is likely to depend on how the Court views the status and relationship of the parties, the context in which the alleged statements were made, and the existence of any privilege.
The law does not create a claim for every bad thing that someone says about us, in large part because (like the old children’s rhyme tells us), most of the time words don’t cause real damage. However, when employers and others say false things about employees that do cause damage, they can lead to very serious claims.