Without libel law, credibility of the press would be at the mercy of the least scrupulous among it, and public discourse would have no necessary anchor in truth. ---David A. Anderson, Is Libel Law Worth Reforming?
If you’ve been defamed just because you’ve put someone on notice with a retraction, correction demand to have the false statements about you removed it doesn’t mean that person will do the right thing and remove the infringing content, retract and apologize.
Unfortunately, there are people who just dig in. It’s these people who give you no choice but to file a defamation lawsuit against them.
If you have been defamed by a person in the United States and live outside of the U.S., did you know that you can file a lawsuit against them where you live or you can file it in their jurisdiction in the U.S.?
You can retain U.S. based lawyers or if you are representing yourself (pro se), check the court to see if you can e-file. If you can e-file, then you don’t have to run to the post office or to the shippers to send off your court filings to make the deadline. If you can e-file you are on a level playing field with the lawyers — time wise.
Why anyone would want to spend at least a year to several years stuck in litigation is beyond me, but the more you How to Legal, follow court cases and read dockets you will see these people exist.
Life would be easier if people just did the right thing.
Fake News, Defamation & Misinformation Case Law
Given the real world consequences of the Internet era of fake news, disinformation and defamation, as we witnessed again when the U.S. Capital was attacked on January 6, 2021, resulting in more tragic deaths, and over seven hundred arrests, I think it is fair to say we are well past the crisis stage.
Thus, following is some case law that you might want to know about as it stands firm against defamation and fake news.
It started with words. Written and spoken.
From the Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District of Delaware, in part:
The Court specifically found David [T. Matusiewicz]’s conduct included, among other things: directing his family to send letters to [Christine] Belford’s acquaintances accusing Belford of sexual abuse; setting up the in-person court hearing that brought Belford to the courthouse where Thomas [Matusiewicz] shot her; lying to probation officers about the need to attend the hearing in person; and traveling from Texas to Delaware in two vehicles that were filled with numerous weapons.
The Court specifically found Amy [Gonzalez]’s conduct included, among other things: spreading false accusations of child abuse by creating online postings and YouTube videos, and sending defamatory emails and letters to [Christine] Belford’s acquaintances; preparing false polygraph reports about these accusations; recruiting third parties to surveil and report on Belford and the children; providing Thomas with temporary cell phone number and cleaning his safe when he traveled to Delaware in 2011 and showed up at Belford’s house; and filing numerous petitions for custody of the children beginning two days after Belford was killed.Cyber Crime, USAO-Delaware
As defendants with their lawyers seemingly always do, they argued that their clients were protected by the First Amendment.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.U.S. Constitution
The Court disagreed and found, in part, “[t]he Supreme Court has held that defamatory statements are not protected by the First Amendment, reasoning that “[r]esort to epithets or personal abuse is not in any proper sense communication of information or opinion safeguarded by the Constitution, and its punishment as a criminal act would raise no question under that instrument.” Beauharnais v. Illinois, 343 U.S. 250, 257 (1952) (quoting Cantwell v. Connecticut, 310 U.S. 296, 309 (1940)).
And while statements of personal opinion are protected under the First Amendment, see Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 339-40 (1974), “there is no constitutional value in false statements of fact,” id. at 340. False statements of fact are not protected because “[n]either the intentional lie nor the careless error materially advances society’s interest in ‘uninhibited, robust, and wide-open’ debate on public issues.” Id. (quoting New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 270 (1970)).
Falsehoods belong to that category of utterances that “are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568, 572,62 S.Ct. 766, 86 L.Ed. 1031 (1942).
Further, “[f]alse statements of fact are particularly valueless; they interfere with the truth seeking function of the marketplace of ideas, and they cause damage to an individual’s reputation that cannot easily be repaired by counter speech, however persuasive or effective.” Hustler Magazine v. Falwell, 485 U.S. 46, 51, 108 S.Ct. 876,99 L.Ed.2d 41 (1988). (emphasis mine)
Ultimately, “David T. Matusiewicz, Lenore Matusiewicz and Amy Gonzalez were sentenced in federal court in Delaware to life in prison for the February 2013 murder of David Matusiewicz’s ex-wife and a friend at the New Castle County Courthouse.”
The defendants, who had argued with their attorneys, “freedom of speech,” and the first amendment, received life sentences for this horrific cyberstalking murder case which started with words – defamatory statements.
“The life sentences imposed by Judge McHugh were necessary to punish the defendants and to protect Christine Belford’s children and our community,” said Acting U.S. Attorney [David C.] Weiss [in February 2016.] “We hope that these sentences provide some comfort to the victims’ families and we thank the law enforcement and legal communities for their contributions to the successful prosecution of this case.”
“The Matusiewicz family caused a lot of unnecessary harm in this case, killing and injuring innocent people for no reason, said Special Agent in Charge [Kevin] Perkins. “This ground-breaking prosecution and investigation shows people who actively take part in planning crimes, even though they don’t pull the trigger, will be held accountable.”Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs
“[t]he Matusiewicz family’s stalking campaign included broad dissemination — by mail, email, websites, Internet postings and other means – of false and defamatory allegations against Belford.”Department of Justice Office of Public Affairs
Thus, as this case demonstrates, if anyone claims that they or anyone else can say whatever they want and there are no consequences these people are not telling you the truth.
Freedom of speech is not the freedom to defame, incite violence, manufacture evidence, and/or the freedom to solicit crimes. If left unaccountable, tragically, more people will be hurt and possibly killed.
The Third Circuit Court of Appeals serves the jurisdictions of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and the Virgin Islands.
This post was updated to include the events of January 6, 2021.
See some examples of how Acting on False/Fake “News” Can Land You in Prison.
Follow some of the Sandy Hook Families’ defamation court cases here.