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JEFFERSON AND THE DEFAMATION LAW

This article is a comment on The Defamation Bill, 1988, which was being introduced by the Government at that time and the defamation law in USA. Truth was not a defence under the bill. This Bill never became a law.


Thomas Jefferson was selected to write the Declaration of Independence over the protests of many. He went on to become the Governor of Virginia, America’s Ambassador to Paris, Washington’s Secretary of State, Vice President under Adam and then the third President of United States of America. When his house caught fire his only query was, is his books were rescued. But his passion was not limited to books alone.

His friend had married a buxom woman named Betsay. He was of a frequent visitor to their house. But when his friend went away to help negotiate a treaty with the Red Indians, Jefferson’s visit to the lonely bride Betsay became more than casual. He tried his best to persuade her that there was nothing wrong in adultery the illicit affair. Of course it is debatable if it should still be an offence. Betsay did not oblige him.

This happened towards the end of the 18th century. He was then a young lawyer from Virginia. He was to regret it. At that time for failing in his attempt and later on for this attempt. When he became the president of America his opponents saw to it that the incident with Betsay was published in the newspapers. Jefferson, who always believed in the absolute freedom of the press, wavered. All principles/rules are undoubtedly made for others and not for oneself. He wrote to the Governor of the States remarking ‘a few wholesome prosecutions at the local level’ will restore the madmen to their senses. Pennsylvania and New York immediately indicted Editors of the newspapers. They were tried under the old law or seditious libel, which made the truth or falsity of the charge irrelevant. Hamilton, his long time adversary, took over the defence of the editors. Jefferson, to the credit, had made no attempt to disguise the truth. He had admitted that when young and single he had offered to make love with the beautiful lady Betsay. But the truth was irrelevant in these proceedings.

Hamilton made one of the most brilliant speeches for the defence. So effective was it, that it persuaded the New York legislature to pass an entirely new libel law in which truth was the deciding factor. Other states soon followed the suit. Thus was established the principle which controls the newspapers today in USA.

This happened more than 150 years ago, but in India truth is still not the deciding factor. Instead, it is still the elusive term the ‘public good’. The Defamation Bill, 1988 does not remove this defect despite the recommendation of the press commission. Truth should always be a complete and good defence to any action of defamation whether civil or criminal. It is true that in England truth, though a complete answer to defamation in civil action is, not alone the answer to a criminal charge. But should we, with our national motto ‘Sataymev Jayate’ follow the English law. Isn’t it rather strange for a nation, with this motto, to adopt a law where truth does not necessarily prevail? May be, after all, truth should not always prevail. We have commissions and committees to prevail over it.

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