In the era of cutting edge media technology, the transfer of information and communication has become remarkably easy. Any happening in one corner of the globe can be seen or heard about at any other part of the globe, almost instantaneously. Such a scenario, however, raises some important concerns. Where there is a lightning-fast transfer of information, there is little control over the kind of information that goes around. This becomes even trickier when communication is directed against people or organizations in written format. When the written communication is in some form of written false expression, it may constitute libel under the law.

Any statement that intends to ridicule, insult or negatively affect the reputation and public image of an individual, business, group, product, nation or religion is called Defamation.

What is Libel?

With the variations in forms of media, defamation also takes different forms. One of the many elements of defamation is called – Libel. It is one of the most commonly observed forms of defamation in the current day and age.

The term ‘libel’ means defamation by signs, pictures, writing, print, effigies as well as other forms of communication expressed in a physical form that negatively affects a person’s reputation, causes public hatred for the person or ridicules a person in her/her profession or business.

The Law and Libel

Normally, State Law governs the tort of Libel, although there are some Federal Law which is related to defamatory actions. The common law of Libel allows damages to be recovered without actual proof of harm. This is generally followed by the State courts, with a few exceptions. Traditional laws state that harm to the image is presumed from the publication itself. However, the First Amendment that secured individuals’ right to freedom of expression, also limits the control of State courts to award punishment in libel lawsuits. A balancing test is done to address competing interests, the right of free speech, versus the right to not be defamed or put in a false light.

Popular Libel Lawsuits

    • New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964)

This case was decided in the Supreme Court of Alabama on March 9, 1964. The court ruled that proof of actual harm is necessary to award damages in a libel lawsuit involving matters of public concern or public figures. As reasoned by the court, speech involving issues of public concern lies at the core of the protections that were guaranteed by the First Amendment. The interest of the state in defamation related damage compensations is outweighed by the protections of the First Amendment.

    • Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. (1974)

This lawsuit was decided on June 25, 1974, by the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit. The 1964 standard of the ruling was not extended to cover this case. In this lawsuit, the legitimate and strong interest of the state to provide compensatory damages to defamed individuals was recognized by the court. The court also cautioned that the extent of damages should be no more than the extent of the actual injury. The court reasoned that recovery of punitive or presumed damages is non-permissible if there is no proof of malice.

Libel is a punishable offense under the United States Code. Even when protection of freedom of individual expression remains a strong focus of the First Amendment, individuals and corporations must take care not to spread defamatory views through libel.

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