The ABA Journal reports that the number of libel suits has been steadily dropping in the United States:
During his 30 years as a lawyer for the New York Times Co., George Freeman says, the “Gray Lady” faced four to five new libel suits per year, on average, and has had maybe eight pending against it at any one time. But that’s all changed.
Currently the New York Times is facing no libel suits, and the parent company faces just one in the U.S. “There’s been a fairly steep decline” in the last few years, he says. “The real question is whether it’s cyclical, as sometimes happens, although never quite to this degree, or whether there are other factors at play.”
The Times is definitely not alone, and the trend appears to have rolled out over two or three decades—not years—according to research from the Media Law Resource Center. The number of trials of libel, privacy and related claims against the media fell from 266 in the ’80s to 192 in the ’90s to 124 in the 2000s. In 2009, only nine such trials were held.
Why is this happening? Is it because there’s much less defamation or invasion of privacy today? I strongly doubt that’s the reason. Instead, I can think of several reasons for the decline in defamation and privacy trials:
1. Defamation lawsuits are very hard to win. Only about 13% are successful. It is thus hard to find lawyers who will take the case.
2. Invasion of privacy lawsuits are also hard to win. The privacy torts are fossilized into the forms they were in circa 1960, and they haven’t evolved to address modern privacy problems. Moreover, courts cling to antiquated notions of privacy that make it hard for plaintiffs to prevail in a data-soaked world.
3. Focusing on trials might be the wrong thing to focus on. Trials themselves are becoming a rarity. Our legal system is overrun with costs, making it an extremely inefficient mechanism to resolve disputes. It is ridiculous that in many cases, the costs of litigating the suit can be greater than the actual money at stake in the lawsuit. Cases get settled just to avoid these costs.