Of Reasonable Readers and Unreasonable Speakers: Libel Law in a Networked World
29 Pages Posted: 10 Feb 2016 Last revised: 19 Jun 2016
Date Written: February 8, 2016
Social-media libel cases require courts to map existing defamation doctrines onto social-media fact patterns in ways that create adequate breathing space for expression without licensing character assassination. This Article explores these challenges by investigating developments involving two important constitutional doctrines — the so-called opinion privilege, which protects statements that are unverifiable or cannot be regarded as stating actual facts about a person, and the actual malice rule, which requires defamation plaintiffs who are public officials or public figures to prove that the defendant made a defamatory statement with knowledge of, or reckless disregard for, its falsity. Given the critical role these two constitutional doctrines play in protecting free expression, it is especially crucial that courts apply them in social-media cases with due regard for the unique aspects of the medium. This article’s analysis of early social-media cases reveals that many — though by no means all — courts addressing these cases appreciate that social media are different than the media that preceded them. However, some of these courts have floundered in adapting constitutional doctrines. The Article addresses the most difficult new issues faced by courts and offers specific prescriptions for adapting the opinion privilege and actual malice rule to social media. It recommends that the opinion privilege be applied based on a thorough understanding of both the internal and external contexts of social-media expression and that this broad reading of the opinion privilege be offset by a narrow reading of actual malice in cases involving delusional or vengeful social-media speakers.
Keywords: media, libel, actual malice, opinion privilege, social media, First Amendment, free speech, defamation
JEL Classification: K13
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation