The Petition Clause In White V. Nicholls

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Held: 1. The Petition Clause does not provide absolute immunity to defendants charged with expressing libelous and damaging falsehoods in petitions to Government officials. Although the value in the right of petition as an important aspect of self-government is beyond question, it does not follow that the Framers of the First Amendment believed that the Petition Clause provided absolute immunity from damages for libel. In 1845 this Court, after reviewing the common law, held in White v. Nicholls, 3 How. 266, that a petition to a Government official was actionable if prompted by "express malice," which was defined as "falsehood and the absence of probable cause," and nothing has been presented to suggest that that holding should be altered. Nor do the Court's decisions interpreting the Petition Clause in contexts other than defamation indicate that the right to petition is absolute. The Clause was inspired by the same ideals of liberty and democracy that resulted in the First Amendment freedoms to speak, publish, and assemble, and there is…show more content…
Respondent alleged that while he was being considered for the position of United States Attorney, petitioner [472 U.S. 479, 481] wrote two letters to President Reagan. 1 The complaint alleges that these letters "contained false, slanderous, libelous, inflammatory and derogatory statements" concerning respondent. App. 4-5. In particular, the complaint states that the letters falsely accused respondent of "violating the civil rights of various individuals while a Superior Court Judge," "fraud and conspiracy to commit fraud," "extortion or blackmail," and "violations of professional ethics." Id., at 5-6. Respondent alleged that petitioner knew that these accusations were false, and that petitioner maliciously intended to injure respondent by undermining his prospect of being appointed United States

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