Defamation and Freedom of Speech

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As Americans, we are known for valuing the importance of freedom of speech. We also know that our reputations are important too, fortunately when others are damaging to our reputation with speech, we are protected from such speech and can sue under the tort of defamation of character. Defamation of character is known as a false statement that causes damage to another’s reputation. In a lawsuit of defamation, the plaintiff must prove two things: that the defendant made a false, damaging statement about the plaintiff, and that the statement was published (accidentally or intentionally) to a third party audience (Cheeseman, 98). It can sometimes be difficult to prove defamation in court, especially when it occurs in an oral statement, which is known as slander. However, sometimes it can be easier to prove when the plaintiff has written the words down, this is known as libel (Cheeseman, 98).

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An example of libel is seen in a recent lawsuit against Elon Musk. Musk is being sued by a Thai cave diver, Vernon Unsworth, for defamation of character. Months before this lawsuit was filed, Elon Musk published a tweet alluding to that fact that Unsworth was a “pedo guy” (Maidenberg, 2018). On top of this tweet, Unsworth is also claiming that Musk sent several emails to Buzzfeed which claimed again that Vernon Unsworth was invovled in perdophilic actions, and that he was banned from the cave rescue site. Unswoth said that none of these claims are true, and he will be seeking damages of $75,000 and requested an injunction to stop Elon Musk from publishing more false claims about Unsworth’s reputation (Maidenberg, 2018).

A different defamation case involved the parents of a deceased child from the Sandy Hook school shooting and an InfoWars reporter, Alex Jones. Veronique De La Rosa and Leonard Pozner, who are parents of a 6 year old student who died in the shooting, are suing Alex Jones for defamation of character. Jones is known for his conspiracy theories in relation to the Sandy Hook shooting. He claimed that the shooting was a staged event, and that all of the parents involved are actors looking for a big payday. Most recently, in August, Jones asked that the case be dismissed. However, the Texas judge overseeing the case ruled against Jones and said that the parents had grounds to sue. De La Rosa and Pozner said they will continue to seek a $1 million lawsuit on defamation of character against Alex Jones (Williamson, 2018).

In another case, The University of Virginia’s dean, Nicole Eramo, won her defamation lawsuit against The Rolling Stone magazine. The Rolling Stone published a story that detailed the sexual assault of a woman who claimed to have been gang raped by several fraternity men on the University of Virginia’s campus. The Rolling Stone article also implied that Ms. Eramo was negligent in her dealing with the report of the rape. After the article was published, many organizations spoke out, saying that the journalism was flawed and that the Rolling Stone had not taken the proper steps to verify the story before publishing it (Ingram, 2016). Eramo and the University of Virginia sued The Rolling Stone and the author of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, for $7.5 million dollars. In a defamation lawsuit involving a person who is a public figure, the plaintiff must prove to the jury that The Rolling Stone had actual intention to cause harm. The trial concluded when the jury found The Rolling Stone and Erdely guilty for defamation (Ingram, 2016).

A recent and largely discussed case involves both Stormy Daniels and President Donald Trump. Daniels had been suing President Trump for defamation of character, claiming that he had tweeted false claims about her that had caused damage to her reputation. The federal judge ruling over the case, dismissed the case, saying that President Trump’s tweet was not meant to be taken seriously and that his rhetoric in the tweet is commonly used as an exaggeration in American politics. Daniels and her attorney, Michael Avenatti, said that they plan to appeal the judge’s decision and will continue to pursue other charges against the President (Guzior 2018).

Cura Cannabis Solution, based in Portland, Oregon, filed a defamation lawsuit in June of 2018 against defendants who have yet to be identified. According to Cura, the defendants anonymously posted false claims about its founder, Nitin Khanna. Some of the claims include allegations of sexual assault and rape. Cura has said that none of these claims are true and that they have significantly damaged the reputation of the company. Cura Cannabis Solution has yet to identify any of the anonymous defendants indicted in the case. The court ruled (had said) on August 20th, that the plaintiff had 28 days to identify the defends. As of October 1st, the company had not made any progress on this request. Cura Cannabis Solution has said it will continue to look for the defendants and pursue the $10 million lawsuit (Danko, 2018).

Dr. Jeffery Feiner filed a lawsuit against his former employer, Orlando Health, for $100 million. Feiner claimed that he was defamed by the organization after he was fired. Feiner (said that he) believes he was fired because he reported an “unethical and illegal” partnership the company had with a pharmaceutical organization (Lynch, 2018, para 2). He claimed that after his termination, Orlando Health had spread word that he had been “throwing knives at patients and threatening to kill someone” (Lynch, 2018, para 4). While Orlando Health stood by its statement that Feiner had many behavioral issues while working for the company, Feiner claimed that he always had a healthy relationship with patients and that these allegations are damaging his reputation as a practicing physician. The case has not received a court date yet. (Lynch, 2018).

Beef Products Inc. settled its lawsuit against the TV network, ABC. BPI filed a defamation lawsuit against ABC, and claimed up to $1.9 billion in damages. The claim was that its company had suffered significant damage after ABC continually referred to its products as “pink slime” in its news reporting. ABC argued that “pink slime” is a concept that had been created before it reported it on its network, and that the company was suffering from the term before ABC started using the concept. BPI disagreed and reported that it has been forced to shut down three of its four major processing factories and consequently has lost nearly 80% of previously expected revenue due to the reporting from ABC. Although ABC has settled the case with BPI, management of the network says that they do not apologize and that they stand by their reporting (Reuters, 2017).

Sarah Palin’s defamation lawsuit against the New York Times has been dismissed by the federal judge. The former Governor of Alaska accused the NYT of publishing an editorial that had false allegations in it about her involvement in a shooting that took place in Arizona in 2017. Palin claimed that the NYT knew that the allegations were not substantiated and that her reputation had been damaged because of it. Palin’s lawyers argued that the Times had published other articles and had access to the facts that proved that she was not connected to the shooting. The federal judge dismissed the case because he did not feel that Palin had succeeded to prove that there was “actual malice” in the published article (Ember, 2017)

Mark Brnovich, the attorney general in Arizona, filed a lawsuit against a group that supports a new proposition on the ballot this year. The group is called Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona. Brnovich claimed that the group is targeting him in its ads that support proposition 127. If the proposition passes, it will force public companies to ensure that 50% of the power is attained by using renewable energy. Brnovich says that the content of the ads produced by Clean Energy for a Healthy Arizona is not true. In the ads, the company claimed that Brnovich added wording to the proposition on the ballot because of donations from companies who do not support the proposition. Brnovich said that these ads damaged his reputation as the attorney general (O’Grady, 2018).

Another case of defamation involved the former senate candidate from Alabama, Roy Moore. Roy Moore ran for a special election senate seat last year but was upset by a democrat, Doug Jones. The upset was particularly shocking because Alabama had not elected a democrat senator in nearly 25 years. Roy moore filed a lawsuit against Sacha Baron Cohen, who he says defamed him during an episode of his show, Who is America?. During the episode Cohen did a bit where he duped Moore to be a pedophine, alluding to the many allegations during his senate race. During the race, several young women came forward to say that Moore had made sexual advances towards them when they were only teenagers while Moore was well into his thirties. Moore stood by his statement that these allegations are false and that Cohen’s display in the episode has further defamed him. As a public figure, Moore will have to prove that Cohen had ‘actual malice’ in order to win this lawsuit (Deb, 2108).

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Defamation and Freedom of Speech. (2022, Feb 09). Retrieved December 4, 2022 , from
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