Friday, October 16, 2015

Libel law and "image consciousness"

In my book Laws of Image: Privacy and Publicity in America, and in my posts on the Legal History Blog this month, I've described how an emerging cultural sensibility in the first half of the 20th century -- an "image conscious sensibility," concern with one's public image and self-presentation in public -- was reflected in the creation and development of tort privacy law in the U.S. "Image consciousness" also shaped the modern law of libel.

Traditionally, the tort of libel protected reputation -- one's good name among one's peers. A defamatory or libelous statement was one that seriously lowered a person's esteem in his community: it exposed a person to "hatred" or "contempt," "injured him in his profession or trade, [and] caused him to be shunned or avoided by his neighbors."

By 1930, some courts were broadening the definition of a defamatory publication to include statements that didn't necessarily lower a person's reputation, but nonetheless caused distress and embarrassment. A publication could be defamatory if it tarnished a person's image in his own eyes, causing emotional distress.
Stanislaus Zbyszko (credit)

In Zbyszko v. New York American, from 1929, the newspaper published an article on the theory of evolution. In one part of the article, the text read: "The Gorilla is probably closer to man, both in body and in brain, than any other species of ape now alive. The general physique of the Gorilla is closely similar to an athletic man of today, and the mind of a young gorilla is much like the mind of a human baby." Near that text appeared a photograph of the well-known wrestler Stanislaus Zbyszko, in a wrestling pose, and under it a caption: "Stanislaus Zbyszko, Not Fundamentally Different from the Gorilla in Physique." He sued the New York American for libel. Though it was unlikely that anyone would think worse of the wrestler for the article, a jury sympathized with his sense of affront and awarded him $25,000.

Legal scholars observed an "increasing tendency" among courts in defamation cases to go "beyond the traditional reaches" of the protection of reputation to protect plaintiffs against "personal humiliation and degradation." A reflection of the image-conscious sensibility, courts were expanding libel's domain from external, interpersonal relations to include self-perception and one's feelings about one's public image.