Advertising and Public Relations Law

By Roy L. Moore; Ronald T. Farrar et al. | Go to book overview

9 Defamation and Product Disparagement

The First Amendment to the Constitution declares that Congress "shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press." That sounds absolute. It is not. A business executive might criticize the government, but had better not advocate the violent overthrow of it. A citizen is privileged to yell "Phooey!" or worse at a political rally, but not "Fire! Fire!" in a packed movie house. Advertising agencies and business corporations have extensive liberty to print and broadcast messages promoting products and services, but not to falsely and unfairly damage a competitor's good name. The Supreme Court has described the limits this way:

All men have a right to print and publish whatever they deem proper unless by doing so they infringe upon the rights of another. For any injury they may commit against the public or an individual, they may be punished. . . . The freedom of speech and the press does not permit the publication of libels . . . or other indecent articles injurious to morals or private reputations. 1

Defamation is the most common, and perhaps the most serious, legal problem currently facing the mass communications industry. Although much libel litigation arises out of news-gathering activities, defamation is still of concern to the public relations and advertising professions. Corporations, products, services, and business reputations can be defamed, as is shown here, in advertising messages and other types of business communications. Moreover, public relations specialists have the responsibility to inform their clients about the possibly far-reaching consequences of libel suits; each court appearance or motion could expose their clients to further potentially adverse coverage. Public relations practitioners should also help their clients understand that fair and accurate accounts of trials, legislative sessions, and government actions are insulated from defamation suits. Thus, unfavorable or even damaging statements, in certain contexts are protected speech under current libel law. 2

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