Changing Gears: Let Libel Suits Boost Your Reputation And Bottom-Line

Tesla Motors recently filed a libel lawsuit against the popular BBC television show Top Gear. Unlike defamy verdicts in 17th century England, it’s unlikely that modern courts will sentence Jeremy Clarkson, the host, to life in prison (or chop off his ears as they did the unfortunate polemic author William Prynn in 1637). Quite the contrary, these days Top Gear has garnered such a following that filing suit against them is as condemnable as criticizing the Queen herself.

For a near 300 years, the American legal system has held newspapers, magazines, radio, and television stations accountable for keeping the facts straight. Traditionally, U.S. courts have favored the media in libel suits. Luckily for law firms and unluckily for their clients, “such victories have been hard fought and costly, absorbing millions of dollars in attorney fees and thousands of hours in lawyers’ offices and courtrooms,” according to Roslyn Mazer, a Washington attorney.[1] As libel suits increase due to the rise of online media sources and Internet traffic, there’s a growing market to be seized by law firms. Boost both the reputation and bottom-line of your firm by entering the blossoming industry of libel suits. 

For the U.S., the legal precedent for libel and slander suits was set in 1734, after John Peter Zenger was imprisoned for printing political criticism against the colonial Governor of the State of New York. Zenger’s lawyer successfully argued that suing for libel should only be allowed if the alleged defamatory information was proven false. In addition, Zenger’s case set another precedent, where libel and slander suits could be tried by juries. A trial by jury means public opinion determines whether or not a statement was libelous. And, a person’s peers determine the amount of monetary damages for such statements. Today, about 90 percent of all libel trials are held before juries.[2]

In 1964, the court case New York Times Co. v. Sullivan further developed libel law by requiring “actual malice” to be present when a reporter or editor printed false statements about a public figure. Justice William J. Brennan, Jr. concluded, “knowledge that the [published information] was false” or that it was published “with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not” constitutes libel. Judges created the rules for libel and have since benefited from them. For example, a judge on the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was awarded $6 million in a libel suit against the Philadelphia Inquirer after the newspaper printed a series of articles that suggested the judge was guilty of influence peddling.[3] Judges, District Attorneys, companies, and individuals have equally benefited from the legal protection against libel. It may be time to investigate how your firm and its clients can profit from these precedents.

Andy Wilman, the executive producer of Top Gear, has published a statement defending the show’s position against Tesla. Luckily for Wilman, Top Gear has a loyal and broad viewership. And, because of this positive public standing, Top Gear has been successful in debunking Tesla’s claims. A law firm—their spokespersons and partners—should be equally diligent in protecting its good reputation. In many cases, relying on mere public support and appreciation is your best defense. 

-WB

[1] An Unfettered Press: Libel Law in the United States by Steven Pressman  http://usa.usembassy.de/etexts/media/unfetter/press08.htm

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

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