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.

Online Defamation Loss Means Courtney Love Has to Pay Big

Oh, Courtney Love.

The Hole front-woman has found herself in the center of yet another costly legal battle. This time around, the notoriously erratic Courtney is paying up for defaming a fashion designer, Dawn Simorangkir, online. Love’s unlovely tweet-rants are costing her a cool $430,000.

Courtney’s Online Defamation Story

It all started in 2009 after Love had bought some clothing from Simorangkir —an up-and-coming clothing designer popularly known as the “Boudoir Queen”. Apparently, Dawn and Courtney got into a disagreement over a $4,000 bill. Love said she didn’t owe it, Simorangkir insisted she did. Instead of handling the dispute in private, Courtney decided to take to Twitter and unleashed a tirade. Accusations ranged from assault and battery, to prostitution, to drug dealing. In one of her more prolific tweets, Love described the Boudoir Queen as an “a**wipe nasty lying hosebag thief”. You know, typical Courtney Love talk.

The attacks were immediately disseminated to Love’s 40,000 followers and re-tweeted thousands of times over. In the days following the initial Twitter rant, offensive comments about Simorangkir began to surface on etsy.com and MySpace.

Shortly after the incident, the designer filed a defamation lawsuit against Courtney Love claiming that the offensive tweets ruined her fashion business.

A trial date was set and settlement talks began. Both sides decided on a $430,000 payday for Simorangkir before the Internet defamation lawsuit saw the inside of the court room.

Legal Implications for Twitter Defamation

In some ways, it’s disappointing that Love’s online defamation trial was eventually settled out of court, for it would have been one of the first defamation lawsuits that dealt with the increasingly popular social media phenomenon, Twitter.

Reports indicate that if the case had been heard by a jury, Love was planning to defend herself by claiming that her tweets were merely opinion. The defense lawyers also had a medical expert lined up who was expected to assert that Courtney wasn’t in a “right state of mind” when publishing the tweets; in essence, a defense that could be surmised as “tweeting while messed-up”.

If you are involved in an online defamation argument, the Kelly Law Firm can help. We’ve successfully handled Internet libel cases of all types and know the most effective ways of both getting the offending information removed and crafting end-user agreements which protect publishers from liability. Use the form to your right to get in touch, or give us a call at 866-961-4948. The consultation is free and our rates priced for online businesspeople.

Online Dating Leads to Jailhouse Online Defamation Lawsuit

Believe it or not, your “fame quotient” dictates what you have to prove when perusing a defamation lawsuit. It’s one of the few things in life where celebrities and politicians have it harder than you or me. It’s much easier for a private citizen to win a defamation lawsuit than a famous (or notorious) person. In fact, recognizable people who did not intentionally seek notoriety, but somehow became inserted into common discourse, will often try to argue that they’re not “public figures” when filling libel and/or slander claims.

Recently, this denial of fame tactic was used by jailhouse-lawyer/convicted felon, Edmund D. LaChance, Jr.

The Desire to Date

In 2005, Ed thought it was about time he branched out and nurtured his inner Bridget Jones. So, he dug deep, wrote what he thought was a welcoming personal profile and let it loose on the website, Inmate Connections. For obvious reasons, Mr. LaChance failed to mention in his bio that he was a convicted rapist.

Enter the Boston Herald who decided to do a series of reports on the dangers of interacting with felons online. Edmund LaChance and his grossly misleading profile were highlighted in the Herald’s informative, public service features. LaChance was neither flattered by, nor appreciated, the unwanted attention the article brought and opted to file a defamation lawsuit—LaChance vs. Boston Herald was born.

But, I’m not Famous!

Famous people are required to prove malice when filing defamation lawsuits, so LaChance filed the suit as a private citizen in an attempt to avoid having to meet the condition. The court, however, disagreed with this status and ruled that Mr. LaChance was considered a “limited purpose public figure” who willingly put himself in the public’s eye the second he clicked “submit” and posted his bio online.

Initially, the Boston Herald made some small factual errors about LaChance in their reporting. Ed tried to use this to his advantage, but was once again knocked down by the court. The judge ruled that the mistakes were protected by the “fair report privilege” and deemed the errors inconsequential since they weren’t “actionably false”.

Public Concern Trumps Online Defamation of Public Figures

Speaking to the larger issue, the court also determined that since the Herald’s articles addressed a matter of public concern, Mr. LaChance was also required to prove that the journalists acted with malice or reckless disregard for the truth. In other words, Ed would have to prove that the Boston Herald went out of their way to make him, the convicted rapist, look bad.

As one would imagine, the court threw the case out and the appellate division upheld their decision.

LaChance’s outcome had a lot to do with the fact that he was considered a public figure. The rules change when defamatory statements affect private citizens. If you are currently in the middle of an online defamation battle, we can provide legal guidance. There are quick, inexpensive ways to legally force defamatory statements about small businesses and individuals to be removed from the Net. And we’re the lawyers who can make that happen for you.

Fill out the secure form to your right to begin the conversation. We’ve passed the bar and we’re Internet geeks; in other words, the perfect legal team to handle your online defamation lawsuit needs.