Thursday, August 25, 2005

Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

The following are informative quotes from the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press First Amendment Handbook:


There is no uniform law for libel. Each state decides what the plaintiff in a civil libel suit must prove and what defenses are available for the media. However, constitutional law requires that plaintiffs or prosecutors prove fault before a news organization can be held liable for defamatory communications.1 When a news organization is sued, the court must balance protection of a person's reputation against the First Amendment values of freedom of the press. Generally, this requires an examination of six different legal elements -- defamatory communication, publication, falsity, identification, harm and fault -- as well as any of a number of defenses available to media defendants.

Libel: Falsity

It often has been said that truth is an absolute defense to libel. Absolute accuracy is not the appropriate criterion. Rather, the general standard is that the information must be substantially true.

Under the common law, the media defendant had the burden of proving that the statements challenged by the plaintiff were true. The Supreme Court changed that standard for libel suits involving public officials and public figures. These plaintiffs are required to prove that the statements of fact were false.

As a result of the Supreme Court's decision in Philadelphia Newspapers Inc. v. Hepps, private individuals suing for libel also must prove the statement was false if it involved a matter of public concern.

Libel: Fault

A plaintiff who is considered a public figure or official has a higher standard of proof in a libel case than a private plaintiff. The public figure or official must prove that the publisher or broadcaster acted with "actual malice" in reporting derogatory information. "Actual malice," in libel parlance, does not mean ill will or intent to harm. Instead, it means the defendant knew that the challenged statements were false or acted with reckless disregard for the truth.

If the plaintiff is a private litigant, he or she must at least prove that the publisher or broadcaster was negligent in failing to ascertain that the statement was false and defamatory. Some states may impose a higher burden on private-figure litigants, especially if the story in question concerns a matter of public importance.

Libel: Defenses

Opinion is still protected speech under the First Amendment, although the Supreme Court limited the formerly broad reach of opinion protection in Milkovich v. Lorain Journal. The court ruled that there is no separate opinion privilege, but because factual truth is a defense to a libel claim, an opinion with no "provably false factual connotation" is still protected.

As a result of this decision, courts will examine statements of opinion to see if they are based on or presume underlying facts. If these facts are false or defamatory, the "opinion" statements will not be protected.


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