First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America

First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

To Alpha, NJ: Cities cannot bring defamation suits. So cut it out.

Dear Borough of Alpha, New Jersey:

I've never visited you, but from your website, you look like a lovely Garden State enclave.  Now, please show some respect for the First Amendment.

Last week, you sued a few anonymous online commentators for defamation.  The suit claims that "Save Alpha" and others slandered the "good name, reputation and public standing" of the "Borough of Alpha."  Your suit wants to end future criticism and interference with borough business.

Here's the problem:  government bodies (like you) cannot sue for defamation. 

There used to be laws to prevent criticism of the King of England.  Then we had a Revolution.  Remember that?  Your State played an honorable role in challenging the royal prerogative to be free from critical examination.

Then, in 1798, Congress made the mistake of passing the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to publish "any false, scandalous and malicious writing ... against the government ... with intent to defame ... or to bring [it] ... into contempt or disrepute, or to excite against [it] ... the hatred of the good people of the United States."  That law, which expired hundreds of years ago, is deep in the dustbin of history.

Nearly fifty years ago, the US Supreme Court held that, "although the Sedition Act was never tested in this Court, the attack upon its validity has carried the day in the court of history," due to a "broad consensus that the Act, because of the restraint it imposed upon criticism of government and public officials, was inconsistent with the First Amendment."

Your suit claims that your Borough was defamed by citizens' comments concerning the way Alpha functions (or fails to function).  But, I don't care what you think defamed you.  It really doesn't matter because the rule is clear.  In this country, the King cannot sue for defamation.  Neither can the US Government.  Nor can you.  You simply don't have a "reputation" that can possibly outweigh the First Amendment.

I know some of your city council members also sued.  As public officials, they have a low probability of success because of the high burdens they must satisfy in a defamation case.  I highly doubt that their suit will work out for them, but there is no question your suit is garbage.

Yours truly,
Jean-Paul Jassy


  1. From the article, "The Twitter account was found disabled early this afternoon." Alpha one Does zero.

  2. Hey Al,
    Another way to look at it: government intimidation 1, First Amendment 0. Sad. And yet, the second article recounts that some of the accounts are still going strong. It sure seems that way from Facebook and Twitter. Perhaps America's tradition of anonymous speech is alive and well ...