Let’s Talk About Some Famous Defamation Cases!
These days, most defamation lawsuits involve an online review, ‘gram, tweet, or Facebook post.
So, to switch things up, let’s hop into the AMC Pacer (kitted out by Emmett Lathrop “Doc” Brown, Ph.D., of course) — and take a “Wayne’s World” trip to some of history’s most famous defamation cases.
Famous Defamation Case #1:Crown v. John Peter Zenger: Truth Becomes A Viable Defense Against Defamation Charges
Back in Ben Franklin’s day, William Cosby wasn’t a disgraced comedian, he was the British governor of New York. But he and Cliff Huxtable did have something in common? Controversy enveloped both. You see, the revolution-ready residents of colonial New York didn’t care for ol’ Bill. It probably had to do with the time he rigged the 1734 elections and pocketed taxes.
Then New York Weekly Journal editor, John Peter Zenger, wanted Cosby booted from power. So, he published anonymous flame articles about the Governor.
Craving revenge, Cosby petitioned for a public NYWJ burning. But the Assembly denied his request. In the wake of defeat — (and being a fan of totalitarianism) — Bill enlisted one of his buddies, Justice DeLancey, to revoke Zenger’s attorney’s license and imprison the editor. Easy-peasy.
Not so fast.
Benjamin Franklin heard about the famous defamation case and dispatched Andrew Hamilton — tout suite — to represent Zenger. Hamilton ultimately won by arguing that “truth should be an absolute defense against libel charges” — a judicial principle which still applies in libel lawsuits.
Famous Defamation Case #2: Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell: First Amendment Showdown
Back in the 80s, when Gordon Gecko was the guy to admire, Hustler Magazine published a parody piece that spawned one of the most famous defamation cases in U.S. history.
An ersatz liquor ad for Campari entitled “Jerry Falwell Talks About His First Time” featured a faux interview with fundamentalist minister Jerry Falwell.
Much to the chagrin of the Rev., the parody suggested an inappropriate Oedipal relationship involving an outhouse deflowering and a bottle of Campari.
A disclaimer appeared at the bottom of the page. It read: “Ad parody—not to be taken seriously.”
Nevertheless, Falwell sued Flynt and Hustler for invasion of privacy, libel, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The jury decreed Flynt innocent of the libel charge but awarded Falwell $150,000 for the charge of intentional infliction of emotional distress.
Flynt subsequently appealed and won. So, Flynt went to the Supreme Court, who ultimately ruled that parody and satire are protected by the First Amendment. Also, since the ad didn’t convey any reasonable false statements of fact, the bench dismissed the defamation charges.
And there you have it, Legal Time Traveler, summaries of two famous defamation cases from the past. Want to read about more celebrity defamation battles? Head here!