Defamation, public figures, and actual malice

Defamation is a tort (a civil wrong that injures another person, who may seek compensation via a civil lawsuit) involving words that harm another's reputation. The law in this area seeks to balance free speech with the protection against injury caused by lies. And, for public officials, there is an additional element called "actual malice" that guides the court's decisions about defamation lawsuits.

For a public official to bring a defamation lawsuit, they have to prove the four commonly accepted guidelines AND that the speaker or writer acted with actual malice. The latter means that the person who issued the statement disregarded the truth, did not care about the facts or simply neglected to properly research the matter. Clearly this can be a difficult element to prove, and guidance from a knowledgeable attorney is necessary.

Actual malice is considered a necessary element in potential defamation cases pursued by public officials for an important reason. As the U.S. Supreme Court stated in the landmark case of New York Times v. Sullivan, "a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open." First Amendment protections of free speech are of paramount importance, thereby increasing the threshold of proof for public officials.

This is the key distinction between possible defamation of a public figure and a private citizen (who does not have to prove actual malice).

Contact our office today with any questions about this and other legal topics.

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