A few years ago, I represented Carol Burnett in her libel suit against the National Enquirer. I hoped that our victory would have some positive effect on the somewhat scurrilous tabloids in this country. It did, and it didn’t.
It did--in that the publicity generated by Carol’s case reached millions of people, showing them the type of journalism practiced by these tabloids. The case also sent a message to the tabloids that there are some people who will stand up to them (latest examples: the recently filed suits by Doris Day and Tom Selleck against the Globe), even through an expensive court battle. (The tabloids make these cases as expensive as possible for the plaintiff.)
It didn’t--because the tabloids are still printing untruthful, unfounded malicious lies about people. For example, I have recently filed suits against the Star for printing such libel about my clients, comedian Rodney Dangerfield and actor Robert Stack.
Unfortunately, these publications sell enough copies to charge lawsuits off as a “cost of doing business.” Shockingly, publications such as the National Enquirer are among the largest circulation publications of any kind in the country. Obviously, many people like to read what the tabloids print.
I fervently believe in freedom of the press. I am as staunch a believer in the First Amendment and the “people’s right to know” as anyone. However, I also believe in individual rights and individual feelings. I don’t believe that a person’s career or personal life should be negatively affected by a false and defamatory article printed in a tabloid.
The United States Supreme Court has ruled long ago that the First Amendment was never intended to protect the publication of known falsehoods or statements published with a reckless disregard for the truth. Publishing known false statements does not enhance the people’s right to know; it diminishes our knowledge.
If people want to read about the birth of two-headed babies and visits from space aliens, that is their privilege. But the publication of reckless lies that adversely affect human beings will, I hope, always be punishable in our legal system.