Saturday, July 23rd 2016

Defamation and the Freedom of the Press

We live in a society where celebrity gossip is practically a currency.  Headlines splashed across the newsstand tell us who Jennifer Anniston is dating, where Paris Hilton was partying, and exactly how heartbroken Sandra Bullock is.  These are fairly innocuous examples; oftentimes the headlines berate the famous for having a bit of cellulite and call young girls sluts and harlots.  When does it cross the line from frivolous gossip to libel and defamation?  At point is this kind of reporting legally harmful and worthy of damages?

Understanding the state of modern libel and defamation claims, particularly as they relate to public figures, it is first important to understand the origins of America’s free press.  A case pre-dating the American Revolution, The Crown v. Zenger, set the standard for determining libel.  Zenger was charged with seditious libel for printing pieces critical of the governor.  His works may have embellished, but they still told the true story of a governor abusing his power.  Zenger clearly published works that fit the legal standard for the time.  However, the jury instead chose the option of nullification.  They thus created the precedent that led to truth being the standard for a libel case.  The press was free from having to be a mouthpiece for the government.

This was the law until a 1964 case that freed the press even more.  New York Times Co. v. Sullivan changed the standard to require proof of malice.  This case arose when the newspaper published pieces detailing the civil rights violations from Sheriff Sullivan’s officers.  Sheriff Sullivan felt that by telling the misdeeds of the police under him the paper was impugning his reputation.  This was not the paper’s intention; they didn’t see how their piece that named specific officers could be interpreted as damaging to the sheriff by the average reader.  The Court came down on their side and the case has been consistently interpreted since as requiring the plaintiff to prove that the offender intended to maliciously harm their name or reputation.  In essence, the plaintiff has to prove what is in the head of someone else.  Did an editor make something up to get sales or were they publishing information on the good faith word of an otherwise reliable source?  This is the decision juries have to make in these types of cases.

So what does this mean to the modern tabloid culture?  Trash and proper publications can essentially print whatever they see fit.  Not only is a defamation claim difficult to prove on its face, the “narrative” of the tabloid makes it even more of an uphill battle.  The public expects certain stories about certain celebrities.  Another roadblock to these suits may be reluctance on the part of certain celebrities.  Even if they were to manage to prove maliciousness, those who are famous for simply being famous may suddenly find less being written about them.  This would damage their livelihood and may be a deterrent to filing suits except in the most egregious of examples.

Whether certain celebrities chose to file defamation claims or not, the case is still a difficult one to make.  England is notorious for having far stricter laws in place to protect its public figures and thus tends to have many more suits of this nature.  There the plaintiff only has to prove injury to income and that a reasonable person is likely to think less of them.  A case early this year made all libel cases only a civil matter; they are no longer tried in criminal courts.  Regardless of the country, defamation cases regarding public figures boil down to freedom of the press versus the rights to protect their reputation. The American judiciary has clearly chosen one of those sides.

Posted by Becky on May 10, 2010 at 12:12pm.

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