Massachusetts law about defamation

A compilation of laws, cases, and web sources on libel and slander law.

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Table of Contents

Massachusetts laws

MGL c.218, § 21 Small claims court does not have jurisdiction over cases of slander and libel

MGL c.231, §§ 91-94 Evidence in libel and slander

MGL c.258, § 10(c) Exempts defamations claims from Massachusetts Tort Claims Act

3 years Statute of limitations


MGL c.260, § 4  Statute of limitations. Actions for slander or libel "shall be commenced only within three years next after the cause of action accrues."

Selected case law

Barrows v. Wareham Fire District, 82 Mass. App. Ct. 623 (2012)
Summary judgment was granted for the defendant because "defamation is explicitly enumerated in G. L. c. 258, § 10(c), as one of the torts exempted from the provisions of the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, and the level of fault pleaded (i.e., intentional, reckless, or simply negligent conduct) makes no difference."

LaChance v. Boston Herald, Inc., 78 Mass. App. Ct. 910 (2011)
The plaintiff, a prison inmate whose profile appeared on a dating site, was a "limited public figure," where he "actively sought the attention of those visiting the site by indicating that he was seeking friendship, romance, legal help, and monetary donations," and thus "voluntarily inject[ed] himself . . . into a particular public controversy."

Murphy v. Boston Herald, Inc. 449 Mass. 42 (2007)
Upholding a $2.1 million jury verdict against the Boston Herald for reckless reporting of a judge's demeanor and handling of several cases, the court was highly critical of reporter Dave Wedge and wrote, "The press, however, is not free to publish false information about anyone (even a judge whose sentencing decisions have incurred the wrath of the local district attorney), intending that it will cause a public furor, while knowing, or in reckless disregard of, its falsity."

New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 US 254 (1964)
A public figure must prove an additional element of "actual malice" in a defamation case. 

Noonan v. Staples, Inc., 556 F.3d 20 (1st Cir., 2009)
Truth may not be a defense to a libel claim. The 1st circuit on panel rehearing overturned the grant of summary judgment in a case in which true but unpleasant statements about an employee were emailed to 1500 employees. MGL c.231, s.92 says that in a libel case, "truth shall be a justification unless actual malice is proved." Shaari v. Harvard Student Agencies, 427 Mass. 129 (1998) held that statute unconstitutional when applied to matters of public concern, but did not address its application to private citizens. This court did not reach the constitutional issue, but instead focused on the definition of "actual malice," and rather than relying on the "modern" definition of "actual malice" used in defamation cases, the court here determined that a more accurate definition was to be found in Conner v. Standard Publishing, 183 Mass. 474 (1903): "malice in the popular sense of hatred or ill-will."

Scholz v. Delp, 473 Mass. 242 (2015)
In this case, it was okay for a newspaper to publish opinions based on disclosed facts that did not imply that the writer had knowledge of undisclosed defamatory facts. Such opinions are not defamatory.

Wolsfelt v. Gloucester Times, 98 Mass. App. Ct. 321 (2020)
Internet postings are subject to the single publication rule, which governs other types of aggregate communications.  Under the rule, a person may bring one (and only one) cause of action for defamation against the publisher based on its publication of the defamatory statement. The statute of limitations for the action begins to accrue when the statement first is posted on the website.

Yohe v. Nugent, 321 F.3d 35 (1st Cir., 2003)
A review of the elements of defamation in Massachusetts.

Web sources

Defamation law made simple,
Learn the basics of slander and libel. 

Defamation: libel and slander law,
Good general introduction to the topic.

Libel and slander,
Description of history, privileges, defenses, and statutes of limitations. Has a FAQ link.

Print sources

Business torts in Massachusetts, 2nd ed., MCLE, loose-leaf, Chapter 9.

Chapter 93A rights and remedies, 5th ed., MCLE, 2022, Chapter 8, Sections 8.2.1(p); 8.3.7(c).

Massachusetts Practice: 

Massachusetts Superior Court civil practice jury instructions, 3rd ed., MCLE, loose-leaf, Chapter 6. 

Massachusetts tort law manual, 3rd ed., MCLE, loose-leaf, Chapter 7.


Last updated: January 24, 2023

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