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A Brief History of US Defamation Law: 1700s – 1960s

History of US defamation law
One of the most famous — and important — defamation lawsuits was that of Peter Zenger in the 1700s.

In This Article:

The history of U.S. defamation law is just as entertaining as a troll’s exasperated threat to “sue you for slander because you called them a ‘%^$#@!-hat'” on Twitter.

Andrew Hamilton Schooled Bill Cosby on What Constitutes Libel and Defamation

Between 1732 and 1736, Sir William Cosby (yes, his name was Bill Cosby) was the British head-honcho of New York. Billy was not well liked; people thought he rigged the 1734 elections and siphoned tax dollars for personal use.

In 1733, John Peter Zenger, Editor of the New York Weekly Journal, angered Cosby by printing an anonymous opinion pieces criticizing the Governor. In response, Bill demanded permission to burn copies of Zenger’s New York Weekly¬† (because that’s how they rolled back then), but the Assembly refused Cosby’s request.

No matter, Cosby was a fan of totalitarian oppression, so he just convinced one of his cronies, Chief Justice James Delancey, to disbar Zenger’s attorneys. Then, Cosby threw Zenger in prison. Done and done, right!?

Unfortunately for ole’ Cosby, not quite.

Benjamin Franklin heard about the situation; he wasn’t impressed. So, Ben convinced his buddy, Andrew Hamilton, to represent Pete Zenger.

In those days, you were guilty until proven innocent. Moreover, to win, Hamilton had to convince the jury that the defamation laws needed changing. So, the fact that he won, was, and still is, impressive.

How did Hamilton win this seminal case in the history of US defamation law? He argued that truth should be an absolute defense against libel charges — a judicial principle that still applies today.

History of US Defamation Law 1960’s: The Supreme Court Makes it Really, Really Difficult to Prove Defamation or Libel

In the 1960s, at the height of the civil rights era, many northern papers shied away from printing articles about the situation in the south. Why? Because, at the time, libel and defamation laws were written in such a way that public figures could easily sue a paper for libel — and win — despite a lack of evidence. In a short period of time, southern groups and leaders had managed to file over $300-million worth of lawsuits against news outlets they claimed were printing libelous and defamatory statements.

The New York Times decided to tackle the issue head-on in the groundbreaking 1964 trial, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan. The legal details of the case are complex, but the most important thing to remember about the case is that it drastically altered federal slander and libel laws.

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled that plaintiffs in a defamation case must prove that either:

  1. the offender knew that his or her statement was false, or
  2. the defendant didn’t engage in proper due diligence when vetting the information before publication or broadcast.

In the 1970s, defamation jurisprudence took center legal stage. At times, it was like a three-ring circus. Jerry Falwell sued Hustler Magazine for libel over a cartoon, and the advent of the Internet brought with it an entirely new set of legal uncertainties that are still being hashed out in the court system today.

Click here to read more about the history of US defamation law.

If you need to speak with a defamation attorney, we invite you to get in touch here. If you want to learn more about defamation laws in other countries, click here.

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