Let’s talk about a couple of famous defamation cases!
Defamation is a negligent, false statement of fact that harms.First came the Internet; an increase in defamation lawsuits followed. The anonymity of cyberspace was — and still is — too tempting for some, and mom’s advice about saying nothing if you have nothing nice to say has seemed to go the way of rotary phones.
Today, most defamation lawsuits involve an online statement, review website, a tweet, or a facebook post. So we thought it would be fun to take a “Wayne’s World” trip, and look back at a couple of famous defamation cases from a pre-tech time.
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 served as the British governor of New York. The revolution-ready residents didn’t care for ol’ Bill; probably because he was accused of rigging the 1734 elections and pocketing people’s taxes.
Then New York Weekly Journal editor, John Peter Zenger, was on “team fir Cosby,” and would publish anonymous flame articles about the Governor. Craving revenge, Cosby formally petitioned for a public burning of the NYJ (dun, dun, dun!). But the Assembly denied Cosby’s request. A fan of totalitarianism, Bill simply got one of his buddies, Justice DeLancey, to revoke Zenger’s attorney’s license and imprison the editor. Easy-peasy.
Benjamin Franklin heard about the then 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 many libel lawsuits today.
Famous Defamation Case #2: Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell: First Amendment Showdown
Back in the 80s, when Gordon Gecko was a guy to admire and the Lower East Side was scary, Hustler Magazine published a parody piece that spawned one of the most famous defamation cases in U.S. history.
A work of satire, the ersatz ad featured a faux interview and pictured fundamentalist Protestant minister Jerry Falwell and a bottle of Campari. The parody’s font mimicked the liquor brand’s actual advertising font. The title of the piece: “Jerry Falwell Talks About His First Time.”
Much to the chagrin of the Rev., the parody implied an inappropriate Oedipal relationship involving Falwell’s first romp — which the parody ad implied took place in an outhouse with his mother and a bottle of Campari.
The phony ad was listed as a “fiction ad and personality parody.” A disclaimer appeared at the bottom of the page: “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 to the Fourth Circuit who sided with Falwell. So, Flynt went to the Supreme Court, who ultimately found that Falwell, being a public figure, was open to parody and satire. Also, since the ad didn’t expressly state any false statements of fact, the defamation charges weren’t actionable.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit judgment, concluding one of the most famous defamation cases about the First Amendment.