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Chitty's Law Journal

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On March 9, 1964, in The New York Times Company v. Sullivan, the United States Supreme Court gave its sanction to a

rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with "actual malice" - that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

This doctrine has governed virtually all subsequent decisions in libel cases. The Sullivan ruling has been seen as introducing new principles into the field; it has been denounced as providing "virtually a license to lie"; and it called forth a promise of corrective legislation from President Nixon. Nonetheless, the issue in Sullivan, the standards by which it was resolved, and the resolution itself all have considerable precedent in cases from nineteenth century America.

This paper will seek to explore some of those precedents. It will try to focus as narrowly as possible on the question: what was the law in America between 1825 and 1896 with respect to civil actions brought by public figures to recover for the written publication of defamatory falsehoods? As background, however, we shall begin by defining a few key terms and glancing at some major developments in this area between 1787 and 1825.



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