The Supreme Court and Libel

By Clifton O. Lawhorne | Go to book overview

PROLOGUE

With the settlement of the American colonies, English rulers brought with them the common law of libel as it had evolved from early Star Chamber decisions in that country. Under this English common law, a libel was defined as a publication that "robs a man of his good name, which ought to be more precious to him than his life."1 The publishers and disseminators of libels were held strictly accountable, ostensibly to prevent breeches of the peace and scandal of government. This, too, was a Star Chamber philosophy, which had been officially formulated in the 1606 Case de Libellis Famosis, as follows:

Every libel . . . is made either against a private man, or against a magistrate or public person. If it be against a private man it deserves a severe punishment, for although the libel be made against one, yet it incites all those of the same family, kindred, or society to revenge, and so tends . . . to quarrels and breach of the peace, and may be the cause of shedding of blood, and of great inconvenience: if it be against a magistrate, or other public person, it is a greater offense, for it concerns not only a breach of the peace, but also the scandal of Government; for what greater scandal of Government can there be than to have corrupt or wicked magistrates to be appointed and constituted by the King to govern his subjects under him? And greater imputation to the State cannot be, than to suffer such corrupt men to sit in the sacred seat of justice, or to have any meddling in or concerning the administration of justice.2

The Star Chamber in this case also set the English precedent that was to last in that country until 1843--that it made no difference whether the libel was true or false.3 To publish any "ill opinions"

-xv-

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