Today we'll take a quick look at three cases that heavily impacted the way defamation law evolved from the turn of the 20th Century all the way through the mid-1970s.
1931 – The Essence of Censorship (Near v. Minnesota)
1931 – In Near v. Minnesota, the U.S. Supreme Court invalidated a permanent injunction against the publisher of The Saturday Press. The paper claimed that Jewish gangs were “practically ruling” Minneapolis, aided by the chief of police. Corruption at its finest.
The Court ruled that the Minnesota statute granting state judges the power to shut down any “malicious, scandalous and defamatory newspaper, magazine or other periodical” is “the essence of censorship” and unconstitutional. In layman’s terms, state judges aren’t allowed to shut down press outlets over defamation claims.
1964 – The “Actual Malice” Standard (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan)
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned a defamation judgment against the New York Times. This case surrounded the interactions between Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Montgomery, Alabama police department during a protest in 1960.
The Court ruled that public officials couldn’t recover damages for a “defamatory falsehood” (a lie that makes you look bad) relating to their conduct unless they prove the statement was made with “Actual Malice.” Very fancy legalese. The Court defines actual malice as making a statement “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard that it was false.” Basically, if you know a defamatory statement about a public official is a lie or you didn't bother to check if the statement was a lie and you publish it anyway, you can be held liable for defamation.
1974 – Defining a Limited-Purpose Public Figure (Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc.)
In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., the Supreme Court established the standard of First Amendment protection against defamation claims brought by private individuals. Remember, the standard of protection for public figures is “actual malice.” The Court held that, so long as states do not impose liability without fault, they are free to establish their own standards of liability for defamatory statements made about private individuals.
As a final matter, the Court created what is now known as the “limited-purpose public figure.” Not everyone is famous in all aspects of their life; in fact, very few are. The Court held that a person who asserts himself into the public eye regarding a specific issue would be treated as a public participant regarding that specific issue, but as a private figure in all other aspects of his life.
In our next post, we will explore parody in the context of defamation, how and when opinions may be defamatory, and the ways modern courts have tried to shape defamation law to handle the complex challenges of the Digital Age.
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.