Important US Defamation Lawsuits: The Late 1960s-1980s

IS Law LibraryThis is the second part in our short series of notable United States defamation lawsuits. Click here for the first installment.

Defamation laws are sure to evolve over the next several decades. The Internet is now a ubiquitous part of our lives and has dramatically altered the way we communicate friends and family, conduct business and get our news. The rise of social media platforms has also complicated what it means to defame another. Is Twitter considered a news outlet that should be held to the same standards as national newspapers? Are all messages on one’s Facebook page count as opinion or are they generally interpreted as fact? These and others are questions currently being explored in courts across the country.

Let’s take a look back at a few monumental defamation lawsuits from the past that have helped shaped libel and slander law up to this point.

Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.

Gertz v. Robert Welch made defamation strict liability unconstitutional in the United States. In addition, the Gertz ruling established that states have the right to set defamation laws for private Citizens and also asserted that if a state’s defamation liability standard is lower than actual malice, only actual damages can be awarded.

The year was 1968 and Robert Nuccio, a Chicago Police officer, was convicted of murdering a man. As was their right, in addition to the criminal trial, the victim’s family also filed a civil suit against Nuccio; Elmer Gertz was retained as their lawyer.

Things got complicated when the John Birch Society—a far-right, conspiracy-minded group—published an inflammatory article in their journal, American Opinion, which fingered Gertz as a member of a communist conspiracy to systematically dismantle police agencies in favor of a dictatorial police state. The Society’s article also implicated Gertz as having an extensive criminal record.

The exact details of the case and appeals are dense and exceed the scope of this entry. Suffice it to say that Gertz filed a defamation claim against the John Birch Society (Robert Welch, Inc. is the group’s legal name). There were many trials and appeals and the Supreme Court had the last word.
In a 5-4 majority ruling, the highest court ruled 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.” Gertz v. Robert Welch is a Supreme Court ruling that expanded what could be disseminated in the press without fear of prosecution.

Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell

8 Supreme Court Justices—with Justice Anthony Kennedy recusing himself from the case—unanimously ruled in favor of Hustler Magazine publisher, Larry Flynt, in his 80s-era, legal rumble with Reverend Jerry Falwell.

A critic of the outspoken evangelist, Flynt published a cartoon in his adult magazine which implied Rev. Falwell had relations with his own mother in an outhouse. Severely aggrieved, Falwell filed an extensive lawsuit against Flynt which charged libel, invasion of privacy and intentional infliction of emotional distress. A Virginia district court threw out the libel charges, but agreed to hear arguments on the emotional distress charge. Moved by the prosecution’s case, Falwell was awarded $150,000 in damages. After several appeals, the case reached the Supreme Court.

The Justices reasoned 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”. Moreover, they found the cartoon to be satirical in that no “reasonable person” would think the animation to be truthful. Flynt won and did not have to pay Falwell the money.

If you have found yourself in the middle on an Internet defamation lawsuit, we’ve got the team of lawyers that can help. Contact us today to begin the conversation.

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