Important Defamation Lawsuits in US History: 1700s – 1960s

In the United States, defamation has always been a legal arena known to expand and change with the advent of new communication mediums and social mores. Due to the Constitution’s free speech guarantee, defamation has also always been very difficult to prove in American law courts. With the Web now a permanent part of our lives, you can expect defamation legislation to, once again, mold and change.

Cosby v. Zenger

One of the first, pre-Constitutional, defamation lawsuits involved British Governor William Cosby and newspaper editor, Peter Zenger. Encouraged and backed by high-powered, influential anti-colonists, Zenger printed anonymous editorials in his Daily Journal accusing Cosby of fixing elections and misappropriating taxes. Cosby was outraged by the accusations and demanded that the local government grant him the right to shut down Zenger’s newspaper. Refusing to bend to the Brit’s wishes, the legislative panel denied Cosby’s requests. Furious at the snub, Cosby enlisted his royal-leaning friend (and judge) to disbar Zenger’s attorneys. For good measure, Cosby also had Zenger thrown in jail.

Famed lawyer, Alexander Hamilton, came to Zenger’s rescue.

Astonishingly, Hamilton convinced a jury that the law used to convict Zenger was, simply put, unfair. Hamilton pleaded that “truth should be an absolute defense against libel charges”. Thankfully, Hamilton won the case and “truth as a defense against defamation” is a legal principle still applied today.

The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan set a legal precedence of actual malice in defamation lawsuits involving public figures. At the beginning of the civil rights movement, southern public figures had filed approximately $3 million dollars in defamation lawsuits against various news outlets. Unsurprisingly, for fear of being slapped with expensive lawsuits, papers and networks shied away from disseminating stories about the actions and statements of politicians.

The New York Times chose to fight back and the result was the Supreme Court ruling which defined “actual malice” as a requirement for defamation lawsuits brought forward by public figures. This decision greatly expanded what could be entered into public discourse without fear of prosecution.

The attorneys at the Kelly Law Firm are equally as geeky about both the history of Internet law and defamation law. If you currently find yourself in the middle of an online defamation legal battle, we’d be happy to help. With dozens of successful Internet defamation cases under our belts, we’re known for our ability to get situations cleared up quickly and therefore inexpensively.

In today’s technologically- dependent world, it’s imperative to rectify any online reputation issues as quickly as possible. Contact us today to get started.