What are common defenses to defamation claims?
The best defense is truth. Other defenses may include a privilege (legislators have a privilege when they speak on the legislative floor), fair report, rhetorical hyperbole, libel-proof plaintiff doctrine, or a retraction statute. The fair report privilege generally applies to a defendant who reports on the deliberations of a public body, such as a city council meeting. Rhetorical hyperbole applies to certain language in certain contents (editorial/opinion column), when it is understood by the readers to be figurative language not to be interpreted literally. The libel-proof plaintiff doctrine applies to a person who has no good reputation to protect.
What is a public figure and why is that important to defamation law?
Plaintiffs in defamation cases have different burdens of proof depending on their status. If a plaintiff is considered to be a public official or a public figure, he or she must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice, which means that the defendant acted knowing the statement in question was false or acted in reckless disregard as to whether the statement was true or false.
However, if a plaintiff suing for defamation is only a private figure, then he or she generally must prove only negligence or fault.
The rationale behind the public official or public figure rationale is two-fold. First, the thinking is that public officials and public figures can more easily counter false statements about them than can private figures. For example, if a tabloid newspaper defames Tom Cruise, he and his public relations people can call a press conference and refute the allegations. However, if someone defames David Hudson, the author of this book, it would be much more difficult for him to counter false allegations.
The second rationale for the different treatment of public and private figures concerns accepting the aspects of fame. Famous people must expect that with fame and public acclaim will come some negative aspects as well.
Another rationale—perhaps even more strongly rooted in the law—is that people should have a strong First Amendment (freedom of expression) right to speak about public issues and that punishing them for every single error would chill free expression. This reasoning led the U.S. Supreme Court to adopt the public official rule in defamation cases in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964).
What are examples of public officials and public figures?
Public officials generally refer to those individuals who hold office, such as political figures. A president, governor, mayor, senator or representative would certainly qualify as a public official.
Public figures refer to those individuals who are people in the public eye and have achieved fame or notoriety. For example, sports stars, movie stars, entertainers, and national broadcasters would qualify as public figures.
The law also recognizes so-called "limited purpose" public figures—persons who have not achieved pervasive fame enough to be all-purpose public figures, but who are public figures for a particular issue or controversy. This is a difficult area of the law, as many persons may become well known in connection with a particular contentious issue but are not considered public figures. In Time v. Firestone (1975; see LegalSpeak above), the U.S. Supreme Court reasoned that the former wife of a man in one of the country's wealthiest families was not a limited purpose public figure.
What happened in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan?
In this 1964 case, The New York Times printed an editorial advertisement submitted by the Committee to Defend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The advertisement spoke about civil rights abuses in the state of Alabama, specifically in the city of Montgomery, Alabama. Some of the statements in the advertisement were false and the commissioner in charge of the police in Montgomery, a Mr. L.B. Sullivan, sued for defamation. He prevailed before the Alabama state courts, but the U.S. Supreme Court reversed. The court decided:
Thus we consider this case against the background of a profound national commitment to the principle that debate on public issues should be uninhibited, robust, and wide-open, and that it may well include vehement, caustic,
LegalSpeak: Time v. Firestone (1975)
Respondent did not assume any role of especial prominence in the affairs of society, other than perhaps Palm Beach society, and she did not thrust herself to the forefront of any particular public controversy in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved in it....
Dissolution of a marriage through judicial proceedings is not the sort of "public controversy" referred to in Gertz, even though the marital difficulties of extremely wealthy individuals may be of interest to some portion of the reading public. Nor did respondent freely choose to publicize issues as to the propriety of her married life. She was compelled to go to court by the State in order to obtain legal release from the bonds of matrimony. We have said that in such an instance "[r]esort to the judicial process ... is no more voluntary in a realistic sense than that of the defendant called upon to defend his interests in court.
and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials ... erroneous statement is inevitable in free debate, and that it must be protected if the freedoms of expression are to have the "breathing space" that they need . to survive..
The interest of the public here outweighs the interest of appellant or any other individual. The protection of the public requires not merely discussion, but information. Political conduct and views which some respectable people approve, and others condemn, are constantly imputed to Congressmen. Errors of fact, particularly in regard to a man's mental states and processes, are inevitable.... Whatever is added to the field of libel is taken from the field of free debate..
The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with "actual malice"—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not..
We hold today that the Constitution delimits a State's power to award damages for libel in actions brought by public officials against critics of their official conduct. Since this is such an action, the rule requiring proof of actual malice is applicable.