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Criminal Libel

The History Of Criminal Libel, Development Of The Law In The United States, The Constitutional Protection Of Freedom Of Expression

Criminal libel is a libel punishable criminally. It consists of a defamation of an individual (or group) made public by a printing or writing. The defamation must tend to excite a breach of the peace or damage the individual (or group) in reference to his character, reputation, or credit.

At common law, libel was recognized as a criminal misdemeanor as well as an individual injury justifying damages (a tort). Prosecutions of the offense had three goals: protection of government from seditious statements capable of weakening popular support and causing insurrection; reinforcement of public morals by requiring a "decent" mode of community discourse; and protection of the individual from writings likely to hold him up to hatred, contempt, or ridicule. The protection of the individual, a goal that is generally left to tort law, was justified by the criminal law's responsibility for outlawing statements likely to provoke breaches of peace.

Although contemporary criminal libel prosecutions are rare, development of the law in this area exposes a society's sense of the proper relationship between citizen and state as well as the proper balance between the community's need for avenues of communication and that for decency in discourse. The law of libel establishes the outer boundary set by interests in community and individual dignity on the processes of reason furthered by robust discussion. Libel, thus, is a perennial problem for a society that prizes uninhibited debate.



Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U.S. 250 (1952).

Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942).

Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967).

Garrison v. Louisiana, 379 U.S. 64 (1964).

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974).

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964).

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law