If the Sherwood Forest Gazette had printed a story accusing Robin Hood of highway robbery, the good-hearted thief could have gone into court with a tremendous advantage. At common law, a man's reputation was presumed to be good, and any attack on his character was therefore assumed to be false. Robin could have sued the paper for damages but would not have had to prove an important element of his case -- that the charge was a lie. Instead, the Gazette would have had to prove it was true.

In this country, common law is interpreted with reference to the Constitution, and when the guarantees and protections of that charter and its amendments conflict with traditional common law, the Constitution prevails. In a series of cases over the last 22 years, the Supreme Court has considered libel in this context and with a particular concern for protecting First Amendment rights when the speech or publication at issue concerns matters of public interest. As a result, different standards apply to libel suits involving public figures, or private individuals dealing in matters of public interest, from those that apply when both the individual and the subject matter of a story are private.

This week, the court considered a libel case involving a private individual, Maurice Hepps, a Pennsylvania businessman, and a story published by the Philadelphia Inquirer tying him to public corruption. Because he is not a public figure, Mr. Hepps did not have to prove that the Inquirer acted with actual malice, only that it was negligent in publishing the story. But the real issue in this case was not that of proving fault -- which is what the courts have been dealing with in recent years -- but rather of proving the falsity of the facts that were printed. Pennsylvania, until now, had abided by the old common-law rule so Mr. Hepps, like Robin Hood, was presumed to have no faults and the paper had to show otherwise. The Supreme Court, however, held that in cases where public issues are at stake, the First Amendment protects a publisher from bearing this additional burden. The plaintiff must prove his whole case, including his allegation that the published material is false.

This newspaper is certainly not a disinterested observer on the issue of libel. But it is important to remember that the First Amendment is not re because it protects publishers and broadcasters but because, in a free society, it safeguards the right of the public to information. Justice Sandra O'Connor, writing for the majority in this case, cites as the court's overriding concern the need to "preserve breathing space" for the discussion of public issues by placing greater burdens on those who would curb such debate. It is this constitutional imperative that guided the court to a fine decision and that protects the rights of citizens to be informed.