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Libel - From Common To Constitutional Law

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For much of the nation's history, the First Amendment freedom of speech and press guarantees did not apply to cases involving libel or slander charges. Libel law was left to the states, and courts applied common law when hearing cases. Libel cases often involved both criminal and civil damages but the more typical cases involved civil suits between individuals. The speaker, if found guilty of libel, could face criminal penalties while the victim could receive a civil damage award. Defamatory statements harming a person's reputation through malice (hateful intent) were automatically considered untruthful statements until the speaker proved their truthfulness. The U.S. Supreme Court even issued rulings supporting this supremacy of state law for libel. In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942), the landmark decision exempting "fighting words" from constitutional protection, the Court held that at no time was libelous expression critical for expressing opinion and therefore should not be protected by the Constitution. A decade later in Beauharnais v. Illinois (1952), the Court reaffirmed the lack of constitutional protection for libel in its only case involving group libel laws. The strongly split decision sustained an Illinois state law prohibiting the defamation of groups of people based on their race, color, or religion. Such laws were considered in the public's interest to restrict racial and religious intolerance. The constitutionality of group libel laws remained suspect through the remainder of the twentieth century.

Only a dozen years after Beauharnais, the Court, operating under the guidance of Chief Justice Earl Warren, dramatically changed direction. In New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), the Warren Court decided some forms of libelous speech were important for political debate. A distinction was drawn between common citizens and public officials. The justices asserted that a requirement to prove absolute truth of statements made regarding a public official could significantly limit debate about public policy and government actions, quite contrary to the intent of the First Amendment. Therefore, the Court created a higher standard for public officials to recover damages for libelous statements and limited officials to only collect civil damages. To do so, the official must prove malice by the speaker or writer or a "reckless disregard" as to the truthfulness of the statement. The decision established the demanding "actual malice standard." The decision in Garrison v. Louisiana (1964) extended the actual malice standard to criminal libel cases as well.

After Sullivan, the Court continued revising libel common law by rigorously protecting the press. The Court used three decisions in 1967 to clarify the Times decision. In Associated Press v. Walker (1967) and Curtis Publishing Company v. Butts (1967), the Court greatly expanded the definition of public official to include public figures in general, including prominent business leaders, entertainers and sports figures. By becoming public figures, individuals in essence surrendered certain rights to privacy. In Time, Inc. v. Hill (1967) the Court further expanded the malice standard to apply to private individuals who were not public figures but were involved in events of public interest. This change was designed to free the media in reporting events with considerably less fear of lawsuit. The decision was soon reaffirmed in Rosenbloom v. Metromedia (1971).

Following Rosenbloom, many believed the Court had gone too far in restricting a private individual's ability to challenge the media when defamatory statements were published about them. The media was becoming too unaccountable. As membership on the Supreme Court changed in the 1970s, the Court weakened the actual malice standard. The Court in Gertz v. Welch (1974) again focused primarily on the status of the alleged libel victim, whether they were public figures or not, and not on the nature of the event at issue. Public figures were considered those who intentionally placed themselves before the public, excluding those who inadvertently became caught up in public situations. The ruling returned greater First Amendment protections to private individuals when suing the media for defamation. A part of the Court's reasoning was that public figures had greater access to the media for responding to false statements about them. Also, lower courts were no longer left with the burden of deciding which events were of public interest and which were not. In suits against the media, private individuals were still required to prove negligence to win their case. Consequently, individuals who willingly became involved in public controversies were still required to satisfy the actual malice standard in proving defamation for false statements by others. In Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. v. Hepps (1986), the Court went further in protecting the press by ruling that any private individual must bear the burden of proving the falseness of statements when suing the media. If defamatory statements related strictly to a private matter, the standard would not apply.

Just when somewhat of a trend was becoming established in Court rulings after 1971 that libel was constitutionally protected in increasingly fewer situations, the Court surprisingly expanded protections further in Hustler Magazine Inc. v. Falwell (1988). The Court ruled unanimously, which was highly unusual for a libel case, that even when a private individual proves the published statements about them are false, they can still not collect damages if the particular topic was of public interest. The Court provided a surprisingly broad interpretation for determining what a public needs to know. Only three years later, the Court in Masson v. New Yorker Magazine (1991) addressed the issue of when an author altered a quote attributed to a public figure to enhance their story. Again, the Court held that malice must be proven to win damages by the public figure.

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