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Defamation Throughout History

So, where did "gossip law" actually begin? How was it formed? And how has it evolved over the centuries? Before diving deep into this fascinating world, here is a short-and-sweet version of defamation law's most notable highlights. 

1735 - Truth as a Defense to Libel (Crown v. Zenger)

Back in 1735, New York publisher John Peter Zenger was tried for defamation after publishing criticism of the Royal Governor of New York. It is hard to imagine now, although it is getting less and less difficult, but speaking out against the government was a crime in those days.

Zenger was defended by an attorney named Andrew Hamilton (Not "that" Hamilton!) and acquitted. His trial establishes the principe that a statement's truth is always a defense to defamation and that a jury may determine whether a publication is defamatory. This case also served as the Colonists' first significant victory in the advancement of the freedom of the press. 

 

1791 - Enactment of the First Amendment

The Holiest of Holies. Touted by ordinary citizens and politicians alike, the enactment of the First Amendment was perhaps the most revolutionary execution of an idea to come out of America’s creation. It passed in 1791, and included the language, “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” This passage ensured an independent check on government power, while at the same time paving the way for TMZ to take its place upon the throne of pop “journalism.”

 

1798 - Criminalization of Statements Against the Government (Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798)

In 1798, Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts. Wildly unpopular, one facet of this law criminalized the act of making a false statement against the government and started actual fights (shown above) in the halls of Congress. I, personally, would love to see that reality show.

In response, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison issued “counter-laws” at the state level that gave states the power to determine the constitutionality of the Sedition Act.  The provision endured until its expiration on March 3, 1801 and, upon assuming office, newly elected President Thomas Jefferson issued pardons to all who were convicted under the statute.

Next time, we’ll take a brief look at a case that strikes at the heart of censorship, see how Martin Luther King, Jr. impacted defamation law, and define the standard of defamation protection for public and private figures.

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Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.   

  • Defamation
  • Dec 20, 2016

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