Two Famous Defamation Cases

Time to talk about a couple of famous defamation cases.

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: Hamilton v. Cosby, 1733

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 anti-Cosby,” and stirred Cosby’s ire by printing anonymous flame articles about the Governor. In search of revenge, Cosby demanded that he be allowed to perform the ultimate repudiation of Zenger and publicly burn copies of the NYJ (dun, dun, dun!). The assembly, however, denied Cosby. Being a fan of totalitarianism, Bill simply got one of his buddies, Justice DeLancey, to revoke Zenger’s attorney’s license and imprison Zenger. Easy-peasy.

Benjamin Franklin heard about the then famous defamation case in New York and dispatched Andrew Hamilton — tout suite — to represent Zenger. On behalf of Zenger, Hamilton argued that “truth should be an absolute defense against libel charges” — a judicial principle which still applies in many libel lawsuits today.

And yep, Andrew Hamilton won the old-school, yet famous defamation case of Cosby v. Zenger.

Famous Defamation Case #2: Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell, 1988

Back in the 80s, when Gordon Gecko was a guy to admire and the Lower East Side had yet to be gentrified, Hustler Magazine published a satirical ad for Campari. The Hustler ad was a satire of a popular Campari promotion. In the ersatz ad, Hustler used a picture of fundamentalist Protestant minister, Jerry Falwell, which included a picture of a bottle of Campari and a font very similar to the font used in the actual magazine advertisement for the liquor.

The phony ad was made to look like an interview with Falwell. The title, designed to be a double entendre: “Jerry Falwell Talks About His First Time.” Much to the chagrin of the Rev., the responses purported to be Falwell’s, were of a sexual nature involving he and his mother. The “first time” concept became all about his first sexual experience in an outhouse with his mother and a bottle of Campari.

In the contents section of the magazine, the phony Campari ad was listed as a “fiction ad and personality parody.” At the bottom of the page, below the ad, was printed the disclaimer “ad parody—not to be taken seriously.”

Falwell sued 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. They declined Flynt’s appeal to rehear the case. Flynt then went to the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court found that Falwell, being a public figure, was open to parody and satire. Furthermore, the ad didn’t claim to make any statements implied as fact. The Supreme Court reversed the Fourth Circuit judgment.