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Why Defamation Laws Must Prioritize Freedom of Speech Essay

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Updated: Jun 27th, 2022

Freedom of speech is an important element of the democratic system of every country in the world since it guarantees people the right to express themselves openly without fearing facing consequences. Nevertheless, freedom of speech does not imply that an individual or a media outlet can say anything they want and, more importantly, convey knowingly false information to the public and claim it to be true. Essentially, every person who is subject to the laws of a country that upholds the rule of law must be protected from unsubstantiated claims which impose damage on their reputation and good name. Defamation laws are designed to address the conflicting areas of freedom of speech and one’s right to reputation and function as an important tool for ensuring the balance between these two fields. The essay will defend the notion that courts must recognize freedom of speech as a priority, even when it means harming a plaintiff’s reputation. The body of the essay will involve providing information on the nature of defamation laws in the USA and the UK, the implementation of such laws in the two countries, and the reason why the American approach is better.

There are numerous jurisdictions on the planet, all of which have different approaches to defamation, and the laws concerning slander and libel in the US and UK are not an exception. Both nations’ legal systems rose from common law tradition, and thus their defamation laws were quite similar until recent times. Yet, in the middle of the twentieth century, two countries took different paths to the point when American celebrities today often travel to the UK to sue media outlets because plaintiffs there are given preferential treatment (Johnson, 2016). The US, on the other hand, to counter such “defamation tourism,” does not recognize any libel and slander-related court decisions made in other jurisdictions thanks to its SPEECH Act (2010). The primary distinction between the two approaches to viewing defamation cases lies in the fact that the US and the UK place different values on freedom of speech.

First of all, the US does not have any federal legislation concerning defamation, which means that all court decisions related to such cases are dame on the level of states. Nevertheless, generally, courts in the US ruled out in favor of the defendants, especially in cases that involve public interest (Nott, n.d.). This translates into stricter requirements for public figures such as politicians to prove that defamation was committed against them. The Supreme Court’s decision in the case of New York Times Company v. Sullivan (n.d.) gave rise to the notion that for public officials to sustain a defamation claim have to prove that the defendant knew that the statement they published was false. Thus, the US courts tend to favor defendants as a way to ensure the freedom of speech guaranteed by the first amendment.

In the UK, the situation is different since the defendants are by design in a disadvantaged position since they have to prove their allegedly defamatory statements by providing substantial evidence. In other words, the falsity of the defendant’s words is presumed, which is different from the US, where the task to prove the falsity of the defamatory claim lies with the plaintiff. Therefore, it can be concluded that the UK courts value reputation over freedom of speech.

Finding the balance between freedom of speech and a person’s reputation is a complex issue, but the USA’s system is fairer since it is more democratic. The UK approach to defamation can be viewed as reasonable and targeted at reducing the number of torts related to libel and slander, yet its severity poses a threat to freedom of speech. There are certain situations when there is no proof or evidence available. For instance, as the recent events with me too movement showed, several decades may pass before a person is ready to testify about being subject to abuse. Newspapers and magazines in the UK would not risk publishing such accusations because of the severe punishment the local defamation laws entail. While in the US, where local media outlets understand that they cannot be held liable for publishing information, the falsity of which is unknown to them can easily present the accounts of victims of famous public figures. Similarly, insider information about large bribes received by public officials would not be published in the UK without any prior research. Therefore, freedom of speech must always be more important than any potential reputational damages because, in a democratic society, people have to have the right to openly share information even if they do not have any way to prove it. In this sense, the American approach recognizes the significance of journalists’ role in keeping the democratic institutions in check by maintaining relaxed defamation laws.

Defamation laws must prioritize freedom of speech over possible reputational losses since only this way, the public can discover information vital for the normal functioning of a democratic society. The US and the UK have different approaches to defamation laws, while the former allows defendants not to provide any evidence for their statements, the latter makes it obligatory for them to prove that their claims are true. US defamation laws are more reasonable since it does not prevent journalists from publishing stories and individuals from disclosing information that concerns controversial matters of public interest.

References

Johnson, V.R. (2016). Comparative defamation Lal: England and the United States. The International and Comparative Law Review, 24(1), 1–97. Web.

New York Times Company v. Sullivan. (n.d.). Oyez. Web.

Nott, L. (n.d.). Freedom Forum Institute. Web.

SPEECH Act, (2010). Web.

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