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Daniel E. Rauch, Defamation as Democracy Tort, 172 U. Pa. L. Rev. (forthcoming).

Abstract: Times v. Sullivan sets a striking principle: without (nearly unobtainable) proof of “actual malice,” public officials can’t win defamation suits. If public persons’ reputations conflict with free discourse, the latter wins. Sullivan is iconic. But it’s increasingly beleaguered, said to immunize lies that tear our polity apart. These fears are well-founded. The Sullivan Regime is broken. But understanding why starts not, as critics suggest, from new technology or constitutional doctrine. It starts from the tort of defamation. What interest does the defamation tort protect? What injury does it redress? Leading accounts look to property, dignity, or other values. But these miss something vital. In our polity, a central, serious harm defamation redresses is democratic disempowerment: the destruction of political efficacy in one’s community. Defamation victims (say, those falsely branded sex offenders) lose more than honor. They lose their ability to be credibly heard, participate in civic discussion, have their voices matter. They are discredited. And in our democracy, where participation is core to personhood, this wrong is profound indeed. This insight shows Sullivan, in balancing vigorous press against defamation suits, wasn’t trading “speech” against “non-speech” (say, politicians’ dignity). Rather, the balance was among speech priorities—vigorous press, and democratically enabled People. Silencing by lawsuits, versus silence by slanders. But Sullivan saw speech on just one side. And in our Viral Age, this error causes crisis: a wave of democratic disempowerment, crashing hardest at democracy’s front lines (school boards, election workers, journalists). Fortunately, seeing the problem shows how we might solve it. End “actual malice” for most public persons, but end all defamation suits brought by the very powerful. Make swifter merits decisions, but re-empower lay juries. Surer defeats for nuisance plaintiffs, but stark damages for egregious defamers. Bold, paradoxical shifts to protect both vigorous critique and democratic participation. And which help tame broader discontents—from baseless conspiracies to bigoted cybermobs. Lastly, most broadly, seeing defamation this way hints at a new private law paradigm: one taking democratic efficacy as a core personal interest (like our bodies, lands, and psyches). Today, this interest faces new threats (like lawless “deplatformings”) but is ill-served by old protectors (like constitutional doctrines). In this context, democracy torts—civil remedies to guard our democratic efficacy—hold great promise.