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
In brief, in the Internet era of fake news, disinformation and defamation, following is some case law which may be helpful.
In the United States v. Gonzalez, for example, the Third Circuit set precedence in a horrific cyberstalking case which resulted in murder. Naturally, as defendants and their lawyers always do, the defendant argued they were protected by the First Amendment.
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)
* 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 law for educational purposes.
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.