Famous Defamation Cases: A Wayne’s World Trip To The Past

Let’s Talk About Some Famous Defamation Cases!

Defamation is a negligent, false statement of fact that harms.

Defamation is a negligent, false statement of fact that harms.

These days, most defamation lawsuits involve an online statement, review website, tweet, or a Facebook post. To change things up, let’s take a “Wayne’s World” trip, and look back at a couple of famous defamation cases from the analogue days.

So, hop in the AMC Pacer (kitted out by Emmett Lathrop “Doc” Brown, Ph.D., of course) — and let’s do this!

Famous Defamation Case #1:Crown v. John Peter Zenger: Truth Becomes A Viable Defense Against Defamation Charges

Famous defamation cases: John Peter Zenger
A 19th-century rendition of the John Peter Zenger famous libel lawsuit.

Back in Ben Franklin’s day, William Cosby wasn’t a disgraced comedian, he was the British governor of New York. What thing do the two Cosbys have in common? Controversy swirled around both. The revolution-ready residents of colonial New York 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, wanted Cosby booted from power and published anonymous flame articles about the Governor. Craving revenge, Cosby formally petitioned for a public burning of the NYWJ. But the Assembly denied Cosby’s request. In the wake of defeat — and 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 today.

Famous Defamation Case #2: Hustler Magazine, Inc. v. Falwell: First Amendment Showdown

Famous defamation cases: Falwell v. Hustler
One of the most famous libel lawsuits in history involves Hustler Magazine and Rev. Jerry Falwell.

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 Protestant 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 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 to the Fourth Circuit who sided with Falwell. 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 — two summaries of two famous defamation cases from the past. Want to read about more celebrity defamation battles? Head here!