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Libel can be a criminal as well as a civil offense. Criminal libel includes imprisonment as a possible punishment, rather than just the money damages available in a civil lawsuit.

Some states make libel a criminal act when a person makes any harmful statement against another individual in writing or print, with malicious intent. For example, accusing a well-known minister of sexually assaulting minors is criminal libel if the person making the accusation knew it was untrue.

However, criminal libel cannot occur in certain privileged situations. In the courtroom, for example, harmful statements made during the course of a legal proceeding are not libelous. Additionally, privileged relationships do not allow for libel charges. A person making statements about family matters to other family members, for example, cannot be charged with criminal libel.