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Defamatory Expression

Defamation is a false communication that harms individuals’ reputations, causes the general public to hate or disrespect them, or damages their business or employment. “The Law Dictionary” definition of defamation is communication that “tends so to harm the reputation of another as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.” To be defamatory, a statement must be an assertion of fact (rather than mere opinion) and capable of being proven false. In addition to being false, the statement, to be defamatory, must identify its victim by naming or reasonably implicating the person allegedly defamed.

Opinions & Commentaries

355 U.S. 171 (1957) BARR v. MATTEO ET AL.         No. 409. Supreme Court of United States.    Decided December 9, 1957. CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA CIRCUIT.Solicitor General Rankin, Assistant Attorney General Doub, Paul A. Sweeney and Bernard Cedarbaum for petitioner.PER CURIAM.The petition… Read more

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Sullivan, a Commissioner of the City of Montgomery, Alabama, brought a civil libel suit against the publisher of the New York Times and four individual black clergymen in Alabama for running an ad in the paper. The ad described police action against student demonstrators and a leader of the civil rights movement. Some of the statements in the ad were false. A lower court found in favor of Sullivan, awarding him damages of $500,000.

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The District Attorney of Orleans Parish, Louisiana, was convicted by a state court for defamation, principally for attributing “a large backlog of pending criminal cases to the inefficiency, laziness, and excessive vacations of the judges” and stating that “by refusing to authorize disbursements to cover the expenses of undercover investigations of vice in New Orleans, the judges had hampered his efforts to enforce the vice laws.”

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Petitioner was sentenced to six months in prison and fined $3,000 for printing a pamphlet found to be prohibited by the common law of criminal libel in Kentucky. The Kentucky Court of Appeals, with three judges dissenting, affirmed petitioner's conviction. 405 S. W. 2d 562. We granted certiorari (382 U. S. 971) and reverse.

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The question presented by this case is whether the Louisiana Supreme Court, in sustaining a judgment for damages in a public official's defamation action, correctly interpreted and applied the rule of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U. S. 254 (1964), that the plaintiff in such an action must prove that the defamatory publication "was made with `actual malice'—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not." 376 U. S., at 279-280.

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391 U.S. 592 (1968) WATTS ET AL. v. SEWARD SCHOOL BOARD ET AL.   No. 325. Supreme Court of United States.   Argued March 26, 1968. Decided June 3, 1968. CERTIORARI TO THE SUPREME COURT OF ALASKA.George Kaufmann argued the cause and filed briefs for petitioners. Theodore M. Pease, Jr., argued the cause and filed… Read more

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This case involves three state libel judgments imposing liability of $165,000 on a labor union as a result of statements made in a union newsletter during a continuing organizational drive. The question presented is whether these libel judgments can be squared with the freedom of speech in labor disputes guaranteed under federal law.

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Respondent United States Senator publicizes examples of wasteful governmental spending by awarding his "Golden Fleece of the Month Award." One such award was given to federal agencies that had funded petitioner scientist's study of emotional behavior in which he sought an objective measure of aggression, concentrating upon the behavior patterns of certain animals. The award was announced in a speech prepared with the help of respondent legislative assistant, the text of which was incorporated in a widely distributed press release. Subsequently, the award was also referred to in newsletters sent out by the Senator, in a television interview program on which he appeared, and in telephone calls made by the legislative assistant to the sponsoring federal agencies. Petitioner sued respondents in Federal District Court for defamation, alleging, inter alia, that in making the award and publicizing it nationwide, respondents had damaged him in his professional and academic standing. The District Court granted summary judgment for respondents, holding that the Speech or Debate Clause afforded absolute immunity for investigating the funding of petitioner's research, for the speech in the Senate, and for the press release, since it fell within the "informing function" of Congress. The court further held that petitioner was a "public figure" for purposes of determining respondents' liability; that respondents were protected by the First Amendment, thereby requiring petitioner to prove "actual malice"; and that, based on the depositions, affidavits, and pleadings, there was no genuine issue of material fact on the issue of actual malice, neither respondents' failure to investigate nor unfair editing and summarizing being sufficient to establish "actual malice." Finally, the court held that, even if petitioner were found to be a "private person," relevant state law required a summary judgment for respondents. The Court of Appeals affirmed, holding that the Speech or Debate Clause protected the statements made in the press release and newsletters and that, although the followup telephone calls and the statements made on television were not protected by that Clause, they were protected by the First Amendment, since petitioner was a "public figure," and that on the record there was no showing of "actual malice."

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We granted certiorari to decide whether the Petition Clause of the First Amendment provides absolute immunity to a defendant charged with expressing libelous and damaging falsehoods in letters to the President of the United States.

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In 2001, Congress created the Transportation SecurityAdministration (TSA) to assess and manage threats againstair travel. Aviation and Transportation Security Act(ATSA), 49 U. S. C. §44901 et seq. To ensure that theTSA would be informed of potential threats, Congress gaveairlines and their employees immunity against civil liabil-ity for reporting suspicious behavior. §44941(a). But thisimmunity does not attach to “any disclosure made withactual knowledge that the disclosure was false, inaccurate,or misleading” or “any disclosure made with recklessdisregard as to the truth or falsity of that disclosure.”§44941(b).

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