Substantial Truth in Defamation Law

31 Pages Posted: 29 Oct 2008

See all articles by Meiring De Villiers

Meiring De Villiers

University of New South Wales (UNSW) - UNSW Law & Justice

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Date Written: October 28, 2008


Truth is a complete defense to a defamation charge, but a defendant does not have to prove the literal truth of a defamatory statement to prevail. An effective defense can rely on the substantial truth doctrine. Under the substantial truth doctrine, a defamatory statement is First Amendment-protected if it is factually similar to the pleaded truth, and does not differ from the truth by more than immaterial details. This article presents and analyzes the theory, application, and constitutional foundations of the substantial truth doctrine. It concludes that the doctrine promotes the values of the First Amendment by reducing the risk of self-censorship, yet preserves defamation law's reputational protection and compensatory function.

Keywords: Truth, substantial truth, defamation, first amendment

Suggested Citation

De Villiers, Meiring, Substantial Truth in Defamation Law (October 28, 2008). Available at SSRN: or

Meiring De Villiers (Contact Author)

University of New South Wales (UNSW) - UNSW Law & Justice ( email )

Kensington, New South Wales 2052
(650) 725-8214 (Phone)
(650) 723-4107 (Fax)

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