Libel Law, Political Criticism, and Defamation of Public Figures: The United States, Europe, and Australia

By Peter N. Amponsah | Go to book overview

Introduction

Around the world, there are several forms of government that allow different levels of freedom of speech as part of citizens' political participation. Freedom of speech, as a right of communication, provides citizens the means of knowing, thinking, deciding and participating in self-governance as their right of citizenship.1 But free speech is always an area of dispute because of its conflicting characteristics. As Rodney A. Smolla put it:

Speech may be uplifting, enlightening, and profound; but it is
often degrading, redundant, and trivial… may confirm and
affirm; it may be patriotic and supportive of prevailing values
and order; but it may also be challenging, threatening, and
seditious, perhaps even treasonous.2

These conflicting tendencies of free speech confront governments, all of which regulate or even suppress speech. However, democratic countries are different from totalitarian and theocratic states in the amount of protected speech. While people in totalitarian regimes have little free speech, democratic societies either guarantee freedom of speech in written constitutions or accept it as the political norm.3

Amy Gutmann described two principles that democracies must support on democratic grounds, namely “nonrepression and nondiscrimination.”4 A complement of this view is Kent Greenawalt's comment that it is “an important political principle that government should not suppress the communication of ideas. Indeed, this principle is frequently regarded as a cornerstone of liberal democracy.”5 So, as a constitutional right or an accepted political principle, political expression is an essential element of democratic self-government. In this vein, political speech is vital to a democratic society because it serves citizens' interest in equality, deliberation, participation, truthseeking, and checking official abuse of power. Nevertheless, the exercise of free political speech often comes into conflict with the societal interest of maintaining personal reputation.6

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