First Amendment Defense in Defamation and Libel Suits

Since the founding of our country, the courts have fought to weigh free speech rights protected under the First Amendment with a person or business’s right not to have libelous, false statements destroy their good name.

Defamation law in the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart "reflects no more than our basic concept of the essential dignity and worth of every human being". Stewart cautioned that judges should carefully weigh an individual’s right to protect her reputation but still provide "breathing space" to allow first amendment freedom to speak one’s mind to flourish.

For nearly 200 years before 1964, our courts tilted the scale to lean toward plaintiffs in libel cases. The Supreme Court equated libelous speech with fighting words or pornography and other obscene material which at the time received no protection under the First Amendment. The Court paid lip service to the First Amendment but it did allow for a robust First Amendment Defense in libel cases.

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964) changed the way the Court treated the interplay between the First Amendment and defamation cases. The case arose out of the civil rights struggle of the early 1960s. The Police Commissioner of Police of Montgomery Alabama brought a libel suit against the New York Times for what he claimed was a false article although the suit merely cited minor errors in the article even though the gist of the article was completely accurate. An all-white and biased jury found in favor of the Commissioner for $500,000. The Alabama courts including its Supreme refused to reverse that ruling. The New York Times didn’t give in and took the battle to the Supreme Court which finally reversed hundreds of years of jurisprudence and allowed for a First Amendment Defense to libel cases. It found the "law applied by the Alabama courts is constitutionally deficient for failure to provide the safeguards for freedom of speech and of the press that are required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct."

This landmark decision allowed courts to balance free speech rights with a person’s right to be free of a defamatory-attacks on his character particularly when the plaintiff is a public figure.

The New York Times case also opened the door for ordinary citizens not just media defendants to use a First Amendment Defense. The Supreme Court found following this case that free speech rights extend to individuals and don’t go away simply because the defendant is not a large media corporation.

"The inherent worth of the speech in terms of its capacity for informing the public does not depend upon the identity of its source, whether corporation, association, union, or individual." First Nat. Bank of Boston v. Bellotti, 435 U.S. 765, 777 (1978).

Free speech rights continue to evolve. Attorneys who defend libel cases need to have studied the case law in great detail and to know the contours of successful First Amendment Defenses to best protect their clients. Our lawyers have decades of experience defending and prosecuting libel cases. You can click here to see where we successfully defended a defamation case by raising First Amendment Defense. First, we forced the Plaintiff to drop his federal libel suit and provide our client with a full release and to litigate whether some of his videos could remain on the internet. The Arbitrator ruled that all of the videos which provided negative reviews of a used car dealer could remain on the internet.

To set up a free consultation with one of our Chicago Defamation, Slander and Libel Attorneys, contact us online or call at our toll-free number at 630-333-0333.

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