This article is no substitute for legal advice: contact a lawyer if your memoirs could harm others’ feelings or reputation.
When writing your memoirs, it may be tempting to get revenge on someone by revealing something about them or what they have done. It is wise to tread carefully, though, as there can be legal consequences for harming an identifiable, living person’s (or group’s) reputation. This area of the law is called defamation.
Defamation is harming someone else’s reputation by making a false statement about that person to a third party. Libel is defamation with a permanent record. Libel can occur in forms like a website posting, a newspaper article, a radio or TV broadcast or even an e-mail. Slander is defamation where there is no permanent record, usually through spoken words.
Ottawa Woman’s Legal Problems
Even so-called “minor” incidents of defamation can have very serious consequences. This is demonstrated by the case of an Ottawa woman, Anne Bisaillon. A judge ruled she had to pay Prestige Furniture of Orleans over $40,000 in damages and legal fees. An Ottawa Sun article recounts that Bisaillon sent an e-mail to 38 friends describing the company as “untrustworthy” and “deceitful”. The court found she could neither prove that the company conformed to those attributes nor could she rely on the fair comment defence.
Tough to Defend
According to Ottawa lawyers Richard Deardon and Wendy Wagner, of the law firm Gowling WLG, “Libel plaintiffs … need only prove that the words complained of are: capable of being defamatory, were published, and refer to the plaintiff.”
Then the onus is on the writer or publisher to provide a defence, which can be time-consuming and expensive. “The onus is on you to prove what you said is true, which can be difficult at times,” says Toronto defamation lawyer Gil Zvulony.
So keep your memoirs positive, as much as possible. It’s best to avoid writing anything negative (or anything that could even be construed as negative) about a specific person or group. If you just have to get something off your chest, first consult with a lawyer.