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NORMAN L. ROSENBERG, Protecting the Best Men: An Interpretive History ofthe Law of Libel. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1986. Pp. 369. $29.95.

Defamation of public officials is a long-standing American tradition. Originating in a robust colonial distrust of English administration, the tradition had by the 19th century become so entrenched that Thomas Jefferson himself could complain ofthe "putrid state into which our newspapers have passed, and the malignity, the vulgarity, and mendacious spirit of those who write for them." Legal control over this exuberant abuse has generally been the province of the law of libel and slander, an arcane and involuted branch of the common law filled with "anomalies and absurdities for which no legal writer ever has had a kind word." Since the founding of the Republic there has been sharp and intense controversy over how this complex law can be reconciled with the paramount principle that elected officials in a democracy be accountable to the public. Norman Rosenberg's Protecting the Best Men is a useful and stimulating history of that controversy.

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