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Free Speech vs. Defamation: How to Know the Difference

On Behalf of | Sep 25, 2023 | Firm News |

Houston, Texas attorney Paul Sternberg has spent decades helping local clients overcome their legal battles. His specialty is helping those threatened or harmed by online defamation attacks.

We, Americans, are known for valuing our freedom. After all, it’s what our forefathers guaranteed us with the First Amendment. Being able to speak freely without fear of persecution is one of our constitutional rights. However, attorney Paul Sternberg notes that our right to free speech only extends so far.

Accusations and false statements made about a person can significantly impact their personal and/or professional reputation. In some cases, these false statements can have longstanding negative effects. This is known as defamation and it can be further broken down into either libel (written/published words) or slander (spoken words).

Yes, there are laws in place to protect our constitutional freedom of speech, but there are also laws to protect people from defamatory acts. Therefore, Sternberg stresses that it’s important to understand the difference between free speech vs. defamation.

Free Speech: What it Is and What it’s Not

Sternberg explains that free speech gives Americans the right to speak, write, and share ideas and opinions without facing punishment by the government. This means that we can express ourselves politically, personally, or religiously, without fear that we will be imprisoned for doing so. As most of us know, this is not the case in every country.

However, free speech does not mean that we can cause harm to others with our words, either written or spoken. For example, the government can restrict free speech under certain, specific circumstances.

These circumstances include:

  • Obscenity and Indecency: Obscenity and child pornography are not protected under the First Amendment and can be banned altogether. Indecency is protected, but the government can regulate this type of speech on radio and television, so long as there is a compelling reason and it’s done in the least restrictive manner.
  • Incitement: In Brandenburg v. Ohio, the Supreme Court established that speech advocating illegal conduct is protected under the First Amendment unless the speech is likely to incite or produce “imminent lawless action.”
  • Fighting words: These are insulting or provocative words, especially of an ethnic, racial, or sexist nature. Fighting words are considered unlawful and, therefore, are afforded less protection than free speech.
  • Defamation: As explained above, defamation consists of making false statements or accusations against an individual or entity.

Defamation Further Explained

Sternberg explains that the idea behind defamation law is simple: it’s an attempt to balance the private right to protect one’s reputation with the public right to free speech. If statements about another are truthful or are based on an honest opinion, they are protected under the law. However, false facts are not.

Defamation occurs when such false statements are made that injure another’s reputation. Both private and public figures can sue for defamation, though public figures must prove that the statements were made with malice, which means that the person making the statement(s) know it is false or that they have a reckless disregard for the truth.

Sternberg notes that proving defamation requires meeting these four criteria:

  • The statement was read or heard;
  • The statement was false;
  • The statement injured the reputation of a person or entity;
  • The statement can’t be the subject of any kind of privilege that shields the defendant of liability.

Understanding the difference between free speech and defamation is important so that individuals can avoid being sued for defamation. Sternberg also notes that many defamation occurrences take place online these days and that is why he specializes in these types of cases.

Paul M. Sternberg owns a private practice law firm in Houston, Texas. He concentrates his practice in the areas of internet defamation law as well as business law. Mr. Sternberg is a graduate from the A.B.Freeman School of Business at Tulane University in 1987, and a 1996 graduate from South Texas College of Law in Houston. Mr. Sternberg, a seasoned entrepreneur, is the author of THE GUIDE TO INTERNET DEFAMATION AND WEBSITE REMOVAL and THE GUIDE TO INVESTING IN COMMERCIAL REAL ESTATE. He has 10 years of experience on representing clients who have been the victims of defamatory cyber-attacks. Mr. Sternberg has developed a reliable blueprint in securing positive solutions in most cases. He has shared his professional knowledge with FOX NEWS and many other media outlets to discuss internet defamation. He is a frequent speaker to attorneys and community groups. He may be reached at or his office at 713-789-8120.

This Article Should Not Be Relied Upon As Legal Advice

Attorney Paul Sternberg, of Houston, Texas, states and declares that the above text is not offered as legal advice, but is provided as general information. The information contained within may not be suitable for all individuals or situations. No attorney-client relationship is created or implied by the provision of this information, nor does the aforementioned make any warranties, whether expressed or implied, of any kind. To discuss a particular situation in more detail, please contact attorney Paul Sternberg for a consultation by calling 713-392-4322.