Legal Hotline: Libel red flag words

  • Feb 25, 2016

Melissa Melewsky, Media Law Counsel

 Q: Our editorial staff reviews letters to the editor for defamation prior to publication, and if we see any issues, we get an attorney involved. Do you have a list of red flag words to assist staff reviewing for defamation?

A: Yes, although no list is comprehensive, and there are many words and phrases not on the list that may raise defamation concerns. The PNA Handbook’s section on Libel contains a list of red flag words, but PNA advises newspapers to contact an attorney if there is any question about whether content may be defamatory.

Defamation occurs when a false and defamatory statement is published that tends to harm a person's reputation or expose him or her to public hatred, contempt or ridicule. Newspapers are liable for the content of letters to the editor published in their printed products and on websites. Please note that newspapers are generally not liable for comments posted on websites by third parties (as opposed to content published or posted by news staff). It is also important to remember that defamation can take many forms, including articles, letters to the editor, headlines, advertising, sports columns, drawings, opinion articles and photographs. PNA recommends that newspapers always conduct a careful pre-publication review for defamation.

The list of red flag words can be found here, and in addition, PNA recommends against words or phrases that suggest any of the following:

  • a loathsome disease (sexually transmitted diseases, etc.);
  • a crime, or words falsely charging arrest, or indictment for or confession or conviction of a crime;
  • religious, racial or ethnic intolerance;
  • association with criminals;
  • financial embarrassment (or any implication of insolvency, unwillingness to pay a debt or bad credit);
  • lying; or
  • membership in an organization in disrepute at a given period of time.

As always, this is not intended to be, nor should it be construed as, legal advice.  Please contact your newspaper’s attorney or the PNA Legal Hotline at (717) 703-3080 with questions.


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