Sunday, March 14, 2010

On Libel Law, Part 1

I am working on a funtrivia quiz on libel law, but there is way more information that I can squeeze into a quiz. So I will undertake something of a historical review.

In the olden days, one's personal character was considered his most valuable asset, or, to put it more precisely, one's *reputation* for personal character was the valuable asset. Consequently, when somebody printed something that caused damage to that reputation, then the victim of that damage could sue for libel to recoup what had been taken from him.

It is obvious that one should not sue for libel lightly. It will take a tremendous emotional and financial toll on the person bringing such a suit. Rarely will you come out ahead financially, so the reasons for suing have to be based on principle. Indeed, we often see instances where the plaintiffs are after only vindication. Thus, when Teddy Roosevelt sued a Michigan editor for libel in 1912, for saying he was a drunkard, the editor got up after five days of trial and admitted he was wrong. TR said that was all he was after and asked for the lowest possible monetary award, which turned out to be six cents!

Similarly, when Annie Oakley felt she was libeled by numerous newspapers starting in 1903, she brought a total of 55 lawsuits throughout the country. She spent six years full-time prosecuting these lawsuits, winning or settling 54 of the 55. However, overall, when expenses and lost wages are taken into account, she ended up losing money.

Then we have the more modern cases of Carol Burnett vs. The National Enquirer, and Tom Cruise vs. a London tabloid. Both won their cases, but donated the winnings to charity as their cases were never about the money, which each presumably had plenty of to begin with.

In future posts we will look at instances when libel cases backfired on the ones bringing them, at the public figure standard enunciated in Sullivan v. New York Times, and at how the other English-speaking countries deal with the public figure issue.


MakeCulture said...

The "public interest" test in the age of Youtube is a very interesting topic. So much random stuff gets high views on there. If 50K people watched a video, it is hard for a judge to say that they are wrong and he is the best arbitor of what is truly in the public's interest of sphere or however it is called.

chessart said...

I assume you mean "public figure"? I remember an interesting case I studied in Torts, where a victim of a crime sued for libel for things being written about him. I think there may have been some invasion of privacy issues there also, but either way the issue was whether the person could be considered a "public figure" solely because of what had happened to him, not because of anything he had done to make himself one. It was a difficult case, and I believe the court ruled he had become a public figure. (Sort of like your Youtube example--if 50K people see a video, the subject is almost by definition a public figure at that point.)