A lawsuit for defamation has the following basic elements:
- making a false statement
- about a person
- to others, and
- actual damages (if the harm to the person is not apparent).
- If the person defamed is a public official or public figure, the person who made the statement has to have made the statement with a known or reckless disregard of the truth.
Private vs. Public
There is no fifth element to prove if the person allegedly defamed is a private individual. A private individual is a person who does not hold a public office relevant to the allegedly defamatory statement. A private individual is a person who does not act or work in a public environment relevant to the allegedly defamatory statement. A private individual is a person who is not involved in an event of public interest.
There is a fifth element to prove if the person allegedly defamed is a public official. A public official is a person who holds a public office relevant to the allegedly defamatory statement. There is a fifth element to prove if the person is a public figure. A public figure is a person who acts or works in a public environment relevant to the alleged defamatory statement, or a person who is involved in an event of public interest relevant to the alleged defamatory statement. A public official or public official must prove the element required by the United States Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
New York Times v. Sullivan
In this landmark case, a public official alleged that a newspaper libeled him by falsely alleging that he had participated in a “wave of terror” against certain civil rights activists. The trial court found in favor of the public official. The United States Supreme Court reversed the judgment of the trial court and sent the case back to the trial court for further proceedings. The Supreme Court pointed to “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, and sometimes unpleasantly sharp attacks on government and public officials.” The court said that constitutional law “prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves the statement was made with ‘actual malice’ — that is, with a knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”
The New York Times v. Sullivan standard was latter extended to public figures. Thus, in addition to the elements that a private individual must prove, a public official or public figure must also prove that the statement was made with actual malice. Actual malice is a known or reckless disregard of the truth.