Important US Defamation Lawsuits

The United States has a long history of interesting defamation lawsuits. Slander and libel legal precedence goes back to pre-Constitutional times and like the nation, has continued to expand and change. With the Internet now a part of our everyday lives, you can expect libel laws to expand over the next several decades.

Below are summaries of a few important defamation cases in United States history.

Cosby v. Zenger

One of the first defamation lawsuits to be heard on US soil was a case between Sir William Cosby, then British Governor of the New York Colony, and New York Weekly Journal Editor, Peter Zenger. Back when the US was still under British rule, Zenger printed several anonymous editorials in his newspaper that accused Cosby of rigging elections and stealing taxes. The totalitarian leaning Cosby grew outraged when he brought the case in front of a panel of legislators; after all, the law body denied him the right to both shut down Zenger’s journal and hold a public paper burning.

Cosby was not pleased with the panel’s decision and decided to have his judge-buddy disbar Zenger’s lawyers and then threw the editor in the slammer. Benjamin Franklin heard about the legal atrocity and dispatched Alexander Hamilton to represent Zenger.

Amazingly, Hamilton was able to convince a jury that the law used to convict Zenger was no good. Hamilton argued that “truth should be an absolute defense against libel charges”. The people agreed and set Zenger free. Hamilton’s argument is a legal principle which still applies today.

The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

The 1964 decision in The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan set a standard of actual malice in defamation lawsuits involving public figures. Arising out of the civil rights movement, NYT v. Sullivan was the decision that enabled journalists to freely report on the actions of politicians (particularly those in the south). Prior to Sullivan, $300 million dollars worth of libel lawsuits were brought against various news organizations.

Actual malice means that plaintiffs must prove that alleged defamers acted with mal-intent. In other words, there has to be prior knowledge that reported information is, indeed, untrue or recklessly researched before publishing. Not following traditional journalist due diligence, however, does not qualify as “gross neglect” in a defamation lawsuit.

The ruling in Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butt upheld the decision in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. In Curtis, the Supreme Court asserted that while news organizations are largely protected from liability when reporting on public figures, outlets may still be held accountable if disseminated information was recklessly gathered or grossly unchecked.

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

Gertz v. Robert Welch is the Supreme Court ruling which effectively rendered strict liability for defamation unconstitutional in the United States. Moreover, the Gertz decision affirmed legal precedence that states have the right to set their own liability defamation laws as they apply to private Citizens. It further asserted that if a state’s defamation standard is lower than actual malice, only actual damages can be awarded.

In 1968, a Chicago Police officer, Robert Nuccio, shot and killed a young man. Nuccio was convicted of second degree murder. The victim’s family decided to file a civil suit against Nuccio and hired attorney, Elmer Gertz, to represent them.

A year after the wrongful death suit began, the uber-conservative, John Birch Society (legal name: Robert Welch, Inc.), published an article in their magazine, American Opinion, which accused Gertz of being party to a vast, communist conspiracy to take down police agencies. The article strongly insinuated that Gertz had a long criminal record and used anti-communist “terms of abuse” including “communist-fronter” and “Leninist”.

Appalled by the accusations, Gertz filed suit against the John Birch Society in federal court claiming the group’s accusations were defamatory and injurious to his reputation as a lawyer. At first, Gertz was awarded $50,000 in damages by lower courts. After several appeals, the case was finally heard by the US Supreme Court.

The defense team argued that Gertz was a public figure and therefore actual malice standards set in New York Times v. Sullivan applied. The highest court on the land was decidedly split after hearing arguments, but a 5-4 majority ruling upheld that “under the First Amendment there is no such thing as a false idea…(it) requires that we protect some falsehood in order to protect speech that matters.”

Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell

Justice Anthony Kennedy took no part in the cases ruling, but the 8 other Supreme Court Justices unanimously sided with adult-entertainment impresario, Larry Flynt, in his legal battle with the Reverend Jerry Falwell.

In 1983, Flynt printed a cartoon in an issue of Hustler magazine that implied Rev. Falwell had an inappropriate encounter in an outhouse with his own mother. Outraged, Falwell filed suit against Flynt for invasion of privacy, libel and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A Virginia district court sided with Flynt on the claims of libel, but agreed with Falwell on the emotional distress charge. Flynt was ordered to pay Falwell $150,000. Flynt appealed, but the Circuit Court affirmed the original ruling. Flynt then went to the Supreme Court who agreed to hear the case.

The Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment of the US Constitution guaranteed free-speech and therefore public figures are prohibited from being awarded damages to compensate for “intentionally inflicted emotional distress”. Flynt won and did not have to pay Falwell the money.

Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co.

Perhaps one of the longer ongoing cases of the last several decades, Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., set a new legal bar in defamation lawsuits by rejecting standards set in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. Specifically, the decision in Milkovich rejected the standard that an “opinion privilege” existed as a blanket defense against defamation.

In 1974, Ohio wrestling coach, Mike Milkovich, and his team were placed on probation by the Ohio High School Athletic Association after allegedly inciting a riot after a match. Upset that the team would not be able to compete the following year, several players filed suit against OHSAA claiming they were denied due process during the OHSAA proceedings. The Court agreed with the athletes and overturned OHSAA’s decision.

Shortly after the OSHAA ruling was appealed, Ted Diadiun, a sportswriter for a local paper, wrote an article which strongly suggested that Milkovich lied during official proceedings. Unhappy with this characterization, Milkovich filed suit against the paper for printing, what he considered, defamatory information.

It took a long time for the Supreme Court to hear the case; but finally, in 1990, a decision was reached. Chief Justice Rehnquist explained in his opinion that rulings in previous defamation cases were not “intended to create a wholesale defamation exemption for anything that might be labeled opinion” and that there are times when there is an implied “assertion of objective fact”.

The Kelly Law Firm specializes in Internet defamation lawsuits. If you’ve found yourself in a legal battle over online statements or accusations, contact us today. We’ve helped those who have been illegally libeled and others trying to fight unfair defamation claims.