Libel & First Amendment

In today's society, the ease of access to information and news has kept defamation, particularly libel, in the spotlight more so now than ever. Defamation, in its most general terms, is the false or unjustified injury of the good reputation of another1. Libel specifically is defamation by the use of print, writing, pictures, or signs2. In Florida, defamation of a private person requires proof of three distinct elements: 1) that the publication be of and concerning that private person; 2) without reasonable care as to the truth or falsity of those statements; and 3) such defamation results in actual damages to that private person3. Bromagen & Rathet, P.A. has successfully defended defamation cases in Florida. In the firm's libel defense case of Jones v. Community Newspapers, Inc., our firm was co-counsel and the defense was able to successfully have a Motion for Summary Judgment granted against the Plaintiff in a defamation suit alleged by a private individual. The basis for the granting of Summary Judgment was that the Plaintiff failed to properly allege and prove that a newspaper article written by Defendant concerned her. The court found that even in the broadest interpretation of the newspaper article, defamation concerning the Plaintiff could not be found. Not only was the defense able to successfully defend this matter on behalf of the Defendant, Community Newspapers, Inc., it also was able to recover the costs and attorney's fees in that matter from the Plaintiff by timely filing a Fee Motion4. The Court in the Jones case found that both the attorney fees and all the costs incurred were "well within the reasonable range for this type of a case," and awarded both without modification 5.

Other developments in the area of libel in Florida over the past few years include the case of Jews for Jesus, Inc. v. Rapp. In the Rapp6 case, the Plaintiff filed suit against Jews for Jesus, Inc. for statements made by her stepson in a company newsletter which was read by the Plaintiff's family members. The Plaintiff asserted a claim for both defamation and false light. The Supreme Court of Florida confirmed the dismissal of Plaintiff's defamation count for failure to properly allege all the elements. Even though the Court affirmed the defamation count, it felt compelled to establish the proper community standard in defamation cases and held that, "a plaintiff has a claim for defamation if he or she suffers injury in his or her personal, social, official, or business relations."7 The Supreme Court in the Rapp case also held that a claim for false light does not exist in Florida and the proper cause of action for such a claim is under defamation by implication, where there has been long-standing Florida law on this issue.

Another holding of particular interest, especially in light of the plethora of foreclosures in these troubled economic times, is in the case of Steed v. EverHome Mortg. Co.8 The Steed case involved a claim by a borrower against a home lender for defamation for the lender's reporting to a credit agency of late payments that were made by the Plaintiff borrower. The Steed court held that, "[w]here a foreclosure notice accurately states that a party has defaulted in the payment of indebtedness, there is no libel even if the party was legally justified in not making payments."9

These are just some of the significant developments in the area of libel. Another prevalent issue involving libel is the protection that is afforded to internet bloggers for comments posted online. At present there are several cases in Florida pending resolution of these issues; however, as of yet none of them have come to a final conclusion in order to establish any type of precedent in this area.

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