Rhetorical Hyperbole

Under Illinois law, rhetorical hyperbole is considered to be non-defamatory. The Illinois Supreme Court has recognized that such speech is protected by the First Amendment and exempt from liability. Rhetorical hyperbole refers to statements that use exaggerated language to emphasize a point. The Supreme Court describes it as language that is “pointed, exaggerated, and heavily laden with emotional rhetoric and moral outrage.” Rhetorical hyperbole is not meant to be taken literally and is incapable of being proven true or false.

While at first glance rhetorical hyperbole may seem to express statements of fact, when the statements are considered in context, it becomes clear that they are not meant to be taken as stating actual facts. Many courts consider rhetorical hyperbole to be statements of opinion and as such nonactionable.

The primary reason statements of rhetorical hyperbole are not actionable is because a libel claim requires a false “statement of fact.” Since rhetorical hyperbole is not considered a statement of fact, the plaintiff cannot prove this necessary element of his claim. Rhetorical hyperbole is also considered nonactionable because the law encourages “imaginative expression” in public debate and, as the Supreme Court has explained, rhetorical hyperbole has “traditionally added much to the discourse of our Nation.”

The Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the First Amendment is meant to ensure that debate is “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open” which “may well include vehement, caustic, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks.” designed “to secure the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources.” This means that mere insults, while cruel, are not libelous.

Federal and state law opinions are filled with examples of defendants using harsh, insulting, and pejorative language that is not defamatory because it is rhetorical hyperbole.

Examples from the Supreme Court include:

  • Greenbelt Pub. Assn. v. Bresler (the word “blackmail” was not defamatory because the context of statement made clear that the word was used figuratively as a “vigorous epithet” to criticize plaintiff’s negotiating position).
  • Letter Carriers v. Austin (calling plaintiff a “scab” was not defamatory).

Examples from the Seventh Circuit include:

  • Dilworth v. Dudley (noting that use of words like “scab,” “traitor,” “amoral,” “scam,” “fake,” “phony,” “a snake-oil job,” “he’s dealing with half a deck,” and “lazy, stupid, crap-shooting, chicken-stealing idiot” are “mere hyperbole rather than verifiable facts”).
  • Wilkow v. Forbes, Inc. (the term “robbed” was nonactionable hyperbole because a reasonable reader would not take the term in a literal, criminal sense).

Examples from state courts include:

  • LeBlanc v. Skinner (NY Appellate Court) (calling plaintiff a “terrorist” online was not defamatory because a reasonable reader interpret it as hyperbole and not literally).
  • Ferlauto v. Hamsher (CA Appellate Court) (calling plaintiff “creepazoid attorney” and “loser wannabe lawyer” was “classic rhetorical hyperbole”).
  • Yeagle v. Collegiate Times (VA Supreme Court) (student newspaper’s description of plaintiff as “Director of Butt Licking” was rhetorical hyperbole and thus nonactionable).
  • Thomas v. News World Communications (D.C. District Court) (article referring to anti-nuclear protesters “bums,” “pitiable lunatics,” “deluded,” and “insane” was nonactionable rhetorical hyperbole).

Whether you are being accused of defaming someone or are the victim of defamation, it is important to seek the counsel of an experienced defamation and slander attorney. The best defamation attorneys have extensive knowledge of First Amendment jurisprudence, defamation defenses, and the common sources of evidence needed to prosecute or defend claims of slander or libel.

Our Chicago area defamation attorneys prosecute and defend libel defamation and slander cases throughout the Chicago. We have offices in Chicago, Wilmette and Elmhurst. You can contact us online here or call us at 630-333-0333.

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