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Defamation, Libel, and Slander: Background

The law of defamation protects a person's reputation and good name against communications that are false and derogatory. Defamation consists of two torts: libel and slander. The main difference between the two is the form in which the defamation occurs. Libel consists of any defamation that can be seen, most typically in writing. Slander consists of an oral defamatory communications. The elements of libel and slander are nearly identical to one another.

English Origins

Historically, there was much less protection for speech (including for the press and for publishers) than we enjoy today. Examples of suppression, fines, and more severe punishment for making (arguably) false and derogatory statements litter the history books. The earliest ancestors to our modern defamation laws come from English courts beginning in the early modern period (approximately around 1500 C.E.).

At this time, the law governing slander focused on oral statements that were demeaning to others. By the 1500s, English courts treated slander actions as those for damages. Libel developed differently, however. During Elizabethan times, English printers were required to be licensed by and give a bond to the government. This licensing policy was instituted because the printed word was believed to be a significant threat to political stability. Libel included any criticism of the English government, and a person who committed libel committed a crime.

Zenger’s Case

This English legal background carried over to North America when colonists began to arrive. One of the more famous and influential defamation cases in early American history is Zenger’s Case (1735). John Zenger published a weekly newspaper that was critical of the royally appointed governor of New York. The governor had Zenger arrested and tried for seditious libel. After considerable uproar, a jury acquitted Zenger of the charge. Many legal historians cite Zenger’s Case as establishing the American legal principle that truth is a defense against a charge of libel and slander. Before Zenger’s Case, truth was considered to be irrelevant.

The history of Zenger’s Case was remembered for years to come. Combined with the colonists’ other experiences with British royal governors, freedom of speech and freedom of the press became a major concern political concern at the time of the American Revolutionary War. Both of these rights, of course, were included in the Bill of Rights at the beginning of the republic.

The Sedition Act

The development of defamation law continued with the founding of the United States. During the presidency of John Adams, Congress passed the Sedition Act of 1798. This law made it a crime to criticize the government. Several Democratic-Republican politicians were convicted of sedition before the act expired. Congress and the courts eventually abandoned this approach to libel, and the law of libel is now focused on recovery of damages in civil cases.

Modern Libel Laws: New York Times v. Sullivan

Beginning with the landmark decision in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), the U.S. Supreme Court recognized that the law of defamation has a constitutional dimension. Under this case and subsequent cases, the Court has balanced individual interests in reputation with the interests of free speech among society. This approach has altered the rules governing libel and slander, especially where a communication is about a public official or figure, or where the communication is about a matter of public concern.

Problems with Defamation? Get a Free Claim Review

Harming someone with words is an actionable claim, as you can see from above. If you or someone you know has been injured because of someone else's written or verbal words, now is the time to act. You may have a valid injury claim against the individual. Learn more with a free claim review from a personal injury attorney in your area.

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