The Supreme Court on Freedom of the Press: Decisions and Dissents

By William A. Hachten | Go to book overview

Chapter Seven
FREEDOM TO CRITICIZE PUBLIC OFFICIALS: LIBEL IMMUNITY

THE RIGHT Of the press to criticize government--to serve as a "watchdog" over public officials and their acts--has been a basic tenet of press freedom since the days of Jefferson and Madison. This is, of course, a constitutional right accorded not only to owners of printing presses but to all citizens. In an early debate in the House of Representatives, James Madison said: "If we advert to the nature of republican government, we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people." And justice Hugo Black wrote in Bridges v. California: "It is a prize American privilege to speak one's mind, although not always with perfect good taste, on all public institutions." The people, it was reasoned, could not adequately govern themselves unless they had the freedom to scrutinize and to criticize those they had chosen to govern them.

However, it took more than 175 years for the First Amendment's protection to be applied to civil libel cases. This extraordinary time lapse resulted from two circumstances: few legal analysts believed the First Amendment had anything to do with civil libel suits and, further, precedents were lacking; only recently have public officials begun using civil libel suits demanding huge damages to retaliate against press or public criticism. President Theodore Roosevelt was satisfied with a six-cent judgment for libel when he sued a newspaper for saying he cursed and was drunk while campaigning.

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