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Journalism Law

News Media on Trial: Claims of Defamation   

News Media on Trial: Claims of Defamation

 Introduction/ Opening

The history of news media and the way in which information was and is now shared has made news and information a necessity for our species to make informed decisions as members of a greater society.  Technology has enabled us to communicate with each other digitally, creating a connectivity that has had wide-reaching effects on all facets of humanity. Media outlets accustomed to one-way broadcasting has too, embraced the digital era adapting to new media and changing societal norms.

News media and the entities that distribute information, otherwise, in general terms “the press” has routinely been under the judicial microscope for claims of defamation. By analyzing our historic laws from the past involving news media and defamation claims, I will attempt to show that in most cases defamation, slander and libel cases are and can directly be related to constitutional laws protecting speech. 

Historical Significance

The First Constitutional Amendment is critical to society and is a protective way to ensure information, in all of its forms, can be preserved and maintained in an easily accessible way. In turn, the Freedoms listed in the First Amendment has helped to shape the media and the news in America ensuring citizens have accessible information to help make informed decisions.

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution allows speech and expression to be free and historically there have been the laws that have provided protection to media agencies and journalists in cases involving defamation, libel, and slander. For Americans, our freedoms are put forth as civil liberties and automatically embedded in the fabric of our life. The founding fathers of our nation adopted a profound democratic system, creating a set of constitutional rights which gives its citizens protection under the law.

free speech usa

Image: E-City Beat


The original common law doctrine of defamation, based upon the nature of the imputation, became stereotyped as the law of spoken defamation, or slander; the doctrine inherited from Roman law, through the Star Chamber, became the law of written and printed defamation, or libel (Veeder, 1903).

The news media organizations and professional reporters and journalists have relied on the First Amendment and its Constitutional laws throughout our history and are directly rooted in the communication of news and information. Moreover, Citizens have always had an unusually direct voice in the approval and change of a constitution, constitutions are considered the most important source of U.S. law explains Pember and Calvert (2012).

The U.S. Constitution is considered and often referred to as the supreme law of the land. Although Constitutional laws serve as the foundation to all other sub-categories of law, criminal laws have since then been written to protect citizens from both oral and written forms of deformation.

A Case Study: Two Court Cases

In the 1994 case, Aequitron Medical Inc v. CBS, the Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor (2009) allowed a lawsuit to go forward against CBS News for various business claims while dismissing defamation and trade libel claims for procedural reasons.  

As aforementioned, the First Amendment is a critical law, in which cases regarding freedoms of speech and freedoms of the press ensure journalistic pursuits by news media are protected, regardless of how the news is spread.

In U.S. V. Quattrone in 2005, Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court nominee (2009) wrote for a unanimous panel striking down a sweeping gag order on the news media issued during the retrial of former Credit Suisse First Boston executive Frank Quattrone.  Sotomayor, writing for the panel, found that the order violated the First Amendment.

defamation2.jpgWhen civic engagement is increasingly mediated online, the law regulating cyberspace becomes the law regulating First Amendment Rights in a digital world (Chander, 2015).  The rights the Constitutional Law protects for journalists working for the news industry is explicitly mentioned, in the First Amendment itself.

The Amendment protects not only speech..but also “free exercise of religion, press, petition, and assembly.”

(U.S. CONST amend.I.)

Our founding fathers must have known the importance of free and accessible information. U.S. Constitutional Rights, are assumed attributes for news media (Pember, Calvert, 2013).  The innovation in technology has created a cyber world where defamation, slander, and libel seem commonplace on user-generated social media platforms.  

free press newspaper

Image: Holtz Realty


The internet has allowed further a new type of user, one that engages in the back and forth commentary of cyberspace and has become immune to words that could be considered slander, defamation, and otherwise unconstitutional behaviors.




Frances (2013) points out that the research shows a decline in defamation claims brought by celebrities, with seven reported cases this year compared with 11 five years ago.

About K. Ryan

My name is Krysta Ryan and I am a student at Ashford University seeking a bachelor's degree in Journalism and a bachelor's degree Mass Communication. I am from Cincinnati Ohio in which my professional experiences include Executive Management within the nonprofit sector and worked as a Social Media Manager which allowed me to gain a working knowledge of writing for newer digital platforms.


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Author Qualifications

  • Bachelor’s in Journalism
  • Bachelor’s Mass Communication
  • Minor in Writing
  • Specialization
    • Environmental Science
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