Defamation / Reputation
Johnson v. Steele
Closed Expands Expression
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The U.S. Supreme Court reversed the Louisiana Supreme Court, finding that criminal sanctions for defamation, even when the speech was true, were in violation of constitutional freedom of speech provisions, and that existing criminal defamation laws must be narrowly tailored to target only speech intending to lead to group disorder or inciting a breach of the peace. The Louisiana District Attorney issued disparaging comments about members of the judiciary alleging inefficiency and excessive vacation time. The Court reasoned that the Constitution limits state power to impose criminal sanctions for criticism of the official conduct of public officials as it does in respect of civil sanctions unless the criticisms are made with “actual malice” (New York Times v Sullivan). Further, anything which might touch on an official’s fitness for office is relevant so personal attributes such as dishonesty, malfeasance, or improper motivation are relevant to official conduct even though they may also affect the official’s private character.
The Louisiana District Attorney, in a press conference, issued disparaging comments about members of the judiciary alleging inefficiency and excessive vacation time. He was tried and convicted under the Louisiana Criminal Defamation Statute, which, in the context of criticism of official conduct, includes punishment for true statements made with “actual malice” in the sense of ill-will, as well as false statements if made with ill-will or without reasonable belief that they were true.
The District Attorney appealed to the Louisiana Supreme Court, alleging the conviction violated his freedom of speech rights. the Louisiana Supreme Court rejected the argument and affirmed the conviction. This appeal followed.
Justice Brennan delivered the opinion of the Court reversing the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The issue for the Court was whether, relying on the decision in N.Y. Times v. Sullivan, the Constitution “limits state power to impose criminal sanctions for criticism of the official conduct of public officials” as it does in respect of civil sanctions” unless the criticisms are made with “actual malice” [p. 2]. The Court found that it does, because, where criticism of public officials is concerned, there was no merit in the argument that criminal libel statutes serve interests distinct from those served by civil libel laws, and therefore should not be subject to the same limitations.
The Court noted that generally criminal law is reserved for those crimes that threaten the security of society and criminal sanctions cannot be justified merely by the fact defamation is evil or damaging to a person in ways that may entitle him to maintain a civil suit. It observed that some narrowly drawn criminal defamation statutes had been upheld, such as those targeting words intended to lead to group disorder or incitement, but that that did not apply in the present case.
The Court took issue with the lower court’s characterization of the District Attorney’s statements as an attack upon the personal integrity of the judges, rather than on official conduct. Despite the use of words such as ‘racketeer influences’ which suggests that a person has been influenced to practice fraud, deceit, trickery, cheating, and dishonesty, the Court said that the statements could not be considered as constituting a purely private defamation. It said that the accusation concerned the judges’ conduct of the business of the Criminal District Court and that “any criticism of the manner in which a public official performs his duties will tend to affect his private, as well as his public, reputation” and “anything which might touch on an official’s fitness for office is relevant. Few personal attributes are more germane to fitness for office than dishonesty, malfeasance, or improper motivation, even though these characteristics may also affect the official’s private character.”
The Court said that public discourse would be chilled on matters of public concern if the speakers were subject to potential criminal liability for speaking out on matters of opinion in their criticism and therefore found the Louisiana State statute unconstitutionally imposed criminal sanctions for criticism of public officials. “For speech concerning public affairs is more than self-expression; it is the essence of self-government” [p. 5]. It said that no true statement should be the subject of criminal or civil sanctions, especially when that speech is of a matter of public concern. The Court also noted in several footnotes the multitude of jurisdictions that allow truth as a defense to defamation charges.
Applying the principles of the New York Times case, the Court held that the Louisiana Criminal Defamation Statute statute incorporated constitutionally invalid standards in the context of criticism of the official conduct of public officials. It said that, “[co]ntrary to the New York Times rule, which absolutely prohibits punishment of truthful criticism, whereas false statements are only actionable if made with actual malice,” the Statute imposed punishment for true statements made with “actual malice”, where actual malice was defined as ill-will and not in the New York Times v Sullivan sense of “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not”.
Therefore, the Court reversed the lower court finding the statute an impermissible restraint on freedom of speech.
Justice Black, Justice Goldberg, and Justice Douglas concurred in the judgment, finding that the Court should have taken the decision one step farther, outlawing all statutes which attempt to criminalize libel.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
This landmark case expands expression by striking down the the criminal defamation statute of Louisiana as a violation of freedom of speech, when the statute did not allow truth as a defense to criticism of official conduct if made with actual malice where actual malice was defined as ill-will and not in the New York Times v Sullivan sense of “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not” and when the statute was not narrowly tailored to be aimed at only speech leading to public disorder or a breach of the peace.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
As a decision of the United States Supreme Court, this decision binds all lower courts in the United States.
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