Watch Your Mouth Defamation, Harassment, and the Right Side of the Law

 In the course of human events, it's almost inevitable that somewhere, at some  point, tempers will flare and someone will say something awful about someone  else. It can happen after the PTA meeting, in the gym, at the office...even in  one's own co-op or condo building. Heated exchanges and personal vendettas are  unpleasant and can make for an acrimonious building environment, which is bad  enough—but what happens when the words do more than just sting or insult? What happens  when it's more than just an offhandedly rude remark, or when it's ongoing?  

 Allowed...Or Illegal?

 The good news for boards and owners in co-ops and condos is that most of what is  said and printed regarding life within the community—even when heated and contentious, and even if not entirely true—is broadly protected by law.  

 When it comes to board members and building residents, “They are a ‘qualified group,’” explains attorney Jim Samson, a partner in the law firm of Samson Fink & Dubow, LLP, in Manhattan. As such, they are protected by the so-called common  interest privilege, which was contrived, Samson says, “to encourage open and free and frank discussion among members of a restricted  group, like a group of shareholders or board members. Communication among them  for the purpose of furthering the corporate business has a defense against  libel and slander, even if it turns out to be untrue—as long as you’re not being malicious about it.”  

 It is maliciousness, when it becomes defamation, that is the stuff of which  lawsuits are made. And sometimes the line between the open discourse protected  by law and actionable defamation is thin. To stay on the right side of that  line—i.e., out of court—it behooves board members to study the basics of the laws regarding defamation.  

 According to the pros, defamation occurs when you publicly malign someone’s character by accusing him or her of doing something that is reprehensible or  criminal, and thereby damage their reputation. Written defamation is called  libel, and defamation that is spoken is called slander. If they can  substantiated in court, damages that result from such statements can result in  heavy penalties.  


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