Libel Law: Finding the Right Balance

August 18, 1989

Report Outline
Special Focus


A flurry of multimillion-dollar libel awards captured the headlines in the late 1970s and early '80s. Most of these awards did not survive the appeals process, however. And in recent years, the courts have been ruling increasingly in the media's favor. But no matter who wins, libel cases are time-consuming and expensive, and representatives from both sides are looking for better ways to balance the rights of the media and those they cover.

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Two weeks before completing its latest term, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously upheld a $200,000 libel judgment against a small weekly newspaper in Ohio. And in one of their final actions before beginning the summer recess, the justices declined to review a $2.8 million libel award against the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, This was the highest libel judgment against a newspaper ever to make its way through the courts.

Not long ago, such decisions would have been denounced by publishers, editors and their lawyers as another sign of retreat from some of the historic First Amendment protections against libel that the media had won from the justices in previous years. But the Ohio and Pennsylvania decisions have not generated much alarm. The general feeling among legal experts seems to be that the nation's news organizations—despite the occasional defeat—have managed in recent years to maintain the upper hand in the courts when it comes to libel cases.

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