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Libel - The Ongoing Libel Dilemma

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With the increasing complexity of libel law through the latter part of the twentieth century, some legal experts argued that libel law should be abolished. Justice Hugo Black stated in an interview in 1962 that he firmly believed the First Amendment intended to prohibit all libel or defamation laws. The Supreme Court had been inconsistent through the years in its findings concerning libel cases, and even had seen justices concurring on the same opinion but strongly disagreeing over the reasons for their finding. Difficulty was often experienced in determining if a person was a public figure, or what the truth may be behind essentially political opinions. In addition, studies indicated libel law complexities frequently led to jury confusion and courts ruling in favor of the alleged victims with minimal evidence their reputations had been damaged.

The meteoric rise of the electronic communications era through the 1990s only added further libel law concerns. When a libelous statement could reach millions of people around the world in an instant, after-the-fact punitive measures offered little protection. Claims were made that people's reputations were rarely protected by libel law, yet the press and others were left vulnerable to large and expensive lawsuits. Libel claims were the most common legal problems facing journalists with court decisions highly unpredictable. The threat of such lawsuits posed a "chilling effect" on publishers to print information they were not absolutely sure was true, especially for the smaller publishers with less cash reserves to sustain high court costs. Libel cases could labor along for years consuming a good deal of staff time and energy. Some contended that the press should enjoy full immunity from libel laws so as not to restrict debate over political issues. Without libel law, the public aided by the press, rather than the courts, would determine the accuracy of defamatory statements.

Libel law proponents still believed the ability of individuals to protect their reputation was basic to freedom and public order. However, libel law as it existed in the late twentieth century protected neither the media nor targeted individuals. Numerous reform proposals through the 1990s were offered but little progress was made. Some key proposals, such as the Uniform Defamation Act, eliminated monetary awards for damages in favor of more straightforward declaratory judgements by the court, called for formal retractions of defamatory statements if found guilty, removed the actual malice standards for public figures, and placed the responsibility on alleged victims for proving defamatory statements false with clear and convincing evidence. If the alleged victim could not prove the falseness of statements, then the individual would have to pay the legal expenses of those accused of libel within reason. Few states had adopted such laws by the late 1990s as the search for more effective ways of protecting reputations from unjust comments persisted.

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