Libel is defined as “a published false statement that is damaging to a person’s reputation; a written defamation.” Though it has been the topic of litigation here and abroad for centuries, one of the most famous libel cases in the United States — and the one that set the benchmark for how libel is addressed today — was the 1803 case, People of New York versus Croswell, which pitted the editor of a newspaper against Thomas Jefferson. In arguing on behalf of the newspaper, Alexander Hamilton said, “Truth is an ingredient in the eternal order of things, in judging of the quality of acts,” thus establishing the idea that if a defamatory statement was true, then it was not libelous.
Since that time, there have been many other notable libel cases that refined the law. These included:
- New York Times Co. v. Sullivan – In 1964 a libel case was filed by the Montgomery, Alabama police commissioner against The New York Times over an advertisement that they published which contained some false statements about him. He demanded a retraction based on the damage that it did to his reputation as a police official, but the Supreme Court decided that in order for what was printed to have been libelous, it needed to have been “published with knowing falsity or reckless disregard for the truth.”
- Hart-Hanks Communications v. Connaughton – In 1989 a libel case was filed against a newspaper by a candidate for an Ohio judgeship over references to “dirty tricks” that had been described by a grand jury witness. In that case, the newspaper lost because of its failure to pursue the truth with due diligence. The court specifically cited the paper’s reliance on a questionable source; its failure to seek more reliable sources; its dismissal of taped evidence and statements to the contrary; having ignored the probability of what it had published; and its indication of prejudice.
- Gertz v. Robert Welch – Though there have long been different standards between the statements allowed to be made about public individuals vs. private individuals, in this 1974 case the Supreme Court established a clear definition of who is a public individual and who is a private individual.
- Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co. – In 1990 the Supreme Court made a libel ruling that publishing an opinion does not protect from being found guilty of libel.
If you believe that you have been the victim of libel and you want to seek justice, it is important that you work with an attorney who has extensive knowledge and experience in pursuing this type of case. Contact us today to set up an appointment to discuss your situation.