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?
Fake News, Defamation & Disinformation 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 four hundred arrests, I think it is fair to say we are well past the crisis stage.
Thus, following is some case law which may be helpful to combat this fake news, disinformation and defamation crisis.
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 [Amy] 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 typically well-paid lawyers seemingly always do, the defendants’ counsel 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.
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 clearly and unequivocally demonstrates, if anyone claims that they or anyone else can say whatever they want and there are no consequences, they 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.
You may read additional case law (in legalese, otherwise known as a Table of Authorities) in the Third Circuit’s opinion at Court Listener.
This post was updated to include the events of January 6, 2021.
* I am not an attorney. Thus, I cannot provide legal advice. But I do enjoy looking up case law and I am providing this case information for educational purposes.
If you are interested in learning more about the law there are several open source resources to look up case law. Some have free trials and others are paid subscriptions.
My favorite is casetext.com. Casetext.com also tells you how often the case law has been cited in other cases. This is also important to know with respect to precedence setting cases.
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.