At the confluence of three major rivers, Madison County, Illinois, was also the intersection of the nation’s struggle for a free press and the right of access to appellate review in the historic case of the Alton Telegraph. The newspaper, which helps perpetuate the memory of Elijah Lovejoy, the first martyr to the cause of a free press, found itself on the losing side of the largest judgment for defamation in U.S. history as a result of a story that was never published in the paper—a case of immaculate defamation. Because it could not afford to post an appeal bond of that magnitude, one of the oldest family-owned newspapers in the country was forced to file for bankruptcy to protect its viability as a going concern.
Attention must be paid to a case in which plaintiff’s counsel earns a place in the Guinness Book of World Records and his adversary is honored for distinction in the defense of a free press and the people’s right to know. Notwithstanding subsequent reform of the supersedeas bond process, the inability to appeal a defamation award for lack of sufficient resources to secure a bond still presents an existential threat to all but the largest media companies. The appeal bond process thus has a chilling effect on organizations engaged in newsgathering and dissemination, abridging freedoms protected by the First Amendment. This Article proposes a re-imagination of the appeal bond to accommodate the legitimate interests of the judgment creditor while protecting a media defendant’s constitutional right to appeal.
Alan M. Weinberger, Immaculate Defamation: The Case of the Alton Telegraph, 1 Tex. A&M L. Rev. 583 (2014).