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10 Rights the First Amendment Absolutely Does Not Grant


9
The Right to Publish Anything
Actress Carol Burnett sued the National Enquirer for libel when it erroneously reported she had been drinking and got into an argument with Henry Kissinger in a restaurant. Burnett won in 1981. © Bettmann/CORBIS
Actress Carol Burnett sued the National Enquirer for libel when it erroneously reported she had been drinking and got into an argument with Henry Kissinger in a restaurant. Burnett won in 1981. © Bettmann/CORBIS

In a 1786 letter to a friend, Thomas Jefferson wrote that "our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost" [source: Library of Congress]. A free and unobstructed press provides a powerful check on government corruption. Journalists — including bloggers and other online writers — enjoy strong protections under the First Amendment, but does that mean you can publish absolutely anything?

Not if it is false. This is where defamation laws come into play. Defamation is speech that is both false and damaging to someone's reputation [source: Doskow]. Written defamation is called libel, and spoken defamation is called slander. Over the years, the courts have established some tests for defamation. The statement must be published, false and "injurious" (proven damage to reputation). If the defamed person is a public figure (like a politician or celebrity), the libelous statement must be made with "actual malice," meaning it wasn't an "honest mistake," but a conscious decision to publish a lie [source: Doskow].

Defamation is a civil offense, not a crime. Victims of libel or slander sue the offending publication for damages. Not surprisingly, the National Enquirer and other tabloids are frequent targets of libel suits [source: Terry].


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