Not all individuals are treated equally under defamation law. Public figures like celebrities, business moguls, and public officials are more often in the public consciousness, and members of the press generally have more leeway when covering them. Public figures also have a greater ability to defend themselves in the public arena because of their access to media outlets, and thus are not extended the same rights granted to private individuals.
In 1960, the landmark defamation case New York Times v. Sullivan set the precedent for libel requirements concerning public figures. During the Civil Rights Movement, the New York Times published an article recounting the events of non-violent protests held in Montgomery, Alabama. The article described Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s interactions with the Montgomery police force. Displeased with the New York Times’ portrayal, Montgomery Commissioner L. B. Sullivan sued the paper. He claimed that, the public would assume the article was referring to him—as the head of the police force—even though he had not personally taken part in the events. While Sullivan was able to prove that the article included minor inaccuracies, he was not able to prove that he had been harmed by the article or even that anyone had associated him with the article’s accusations.
The Supreme Court found the New York Times not guilty of defaming Sullivan. In the opinion, Justice Brennan quoted James Madison, who said in the Report on the Virginia Resolutions of 1798 that “Some degree of abuse is inseparable from the proper use of every thing, and in no instance is this more true than in that of the press.” He went on to give historical examples of the Court excusing false statements in order to protect the marketplace of ideas. His conclusion suggested that, within public discussion, there are some errors that will inevitably be made. When false statements are made about public officials unintentionally, the Court must protect them for the greater good of the freedom of expression.
New York Times v. Sullivan established the standard of “actual malice.” Since then, public figures must prove that a reporter acted with actual malice—that is, with direct knowledge of the information’s falsity or reckless disregard for its veracity. Although this standard makes it incredibly difficult for a public figure to win a defamation suit, many are inclined to file a lawsuit as a means of convincing the media to make a retraction, or simply to save face. However, others would prefer to let the media publish what it wants and wait it out, as opposed to further publicizing the issue.
Even in light of its admitted imperfections, the Sullivan ruling is heralded as one of the most significant defamation cases, and continues to inform media rights policy today.
Next time we'll take a look at the standard applied to private citizens in defamation actions.
Jon Pfeiffer is an experienced entertainment and copyright trial attorney practicing in Santa Monica. Jon is also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California where he teaches Media Law. COM 570 covers First Amendment issues as well as copyright, defamation and privacy.