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Freedom of Speech

Defamation And Privacy

In NEW YORK TIMES V. SULLIVAN, 376 U.S. 254, 84 S. Ct. 710, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686 (1964), the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the First Amendment protects open and robust debate on public issues, even when such debate includes "vehement, caustic, unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials." In Sullivan, a public official claimed that allegations about him that had appeared in the New York Times were false, and he sued the newspaper for libel. The Court balanced the plaintiff's interest in preserving his reputation against the public's interest in freedom of expression, particularly in the area of political debate. It decided that, in order to recover damages, a public official must prove actual malice, which is knowledge that the statements were false or that they were made with reckless disregard of whether they were false.

Where the plaintiff in a DEFAMATION action is a private citizen who is not in the public eye, the law extends a lesser degree of constitutional protection to the statements at issue. Public figures voluntarily place themselves in positions that invite close scrutiny, whereas private citizens have a greater interest in protecting their reputation. A private citizen's reputational and privacy interests tend to outweigh free speech considerations and therefore deserve greater protection from the courts (see Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 94 S. Ct. 2997, 41 L. Ed. 2d 789 [1974]).

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Filiation Proceeding to Freedom from encumbranceFreedom of Speech - Public Forum Regulation, Inciting, Provocative, Or Offensive Speech, Prior Restraint, Expressive Conduct