Press Room

Should the Courts More Frequently Use Public Opinion Polls in Defamation Cases?

January 26, 2018
New Research
Free Speech

These days, there seems to be a public opinion poll on every topic, from presidential approval ratings and consumer product use, to knowledge about current events and views of celebrities. However, while polls became ubiquitous in the 20th century, they were not used at all as evidence in court cases until the early 1950s. While polls are now frequently used in court, they are rarely used in defamation cases. In a new article in the NCA journal First Amendment Studies, Eric P. Robinson, attorney and Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina, outlines the history of using public opinion polls as evidence in defamation cases, and argues that the courts should use them more.

In a defamation lawsuit, a legal claim is based on harm to the plaintiff’s reputation. According to Robinson, the “law conceives of reputation, and damage to reputation, as a social phenomenon.” A defamatory statement lowers the plaintiff in the estimation of the community or deters third persons from associating or dealing with him. To accurately measure the opinions of others, Robinson strongly recommends using public opinion polls.

Robinson rounds up the eight defamation trials that have used public opinion polls as evidence, including Newton v. NBC (1981), Rudin v. Dow Jones & Co., Inc. (1983), Stern v. Cosby (2009), and Beef Products, Inc. v. American Broadcasting Companies, Inc. (2017). Robinson acknowledges that while the courts have become more accepting of social science evidence in the last century, “their approaches to free speech issues are often in direct conflict with results of social science research on the same questions.” Moreover, when the judge and jury are proxies for public opinion, they don’t represent the general public, and therefore present a narrow, subjective view of the case.

While opinion polls need to be examined closely for methodology, sample size, demographics, and the questions asked, Robinson argues that “It is time to use proven methods to determine the impact of alleged defamatory statements on actual people.”

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Read the full article on Taylor & Francis Online here.

To arrange an interview with the study author, contact Jenna Sauber at 202-534-1104 or jsauber@natcom.org.

About the National Communication Association

The National Communication Association (NCA) advances Communication as the discipline that studies all forms, modes, media, and consequences of communication through humanistic, social scientific, and aesthetic inquiry. NCA serves the scholars, teachers, and practitioners who are its members by enabling and supporting their professional interests in research and teaching. Dedicated to fostering and promoting free and ethical communication, NCA promotes the widespread appreciation of the importance of communication in public and private life, the application of competent communication to improve the quality of human life and relationships, and the use of knowledge about communication to solve human problems. For more information, visit natcom.org, follow us on Twitter at @natcomm, and find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/NationalCommunicationAssociation.