Note: This page covers information specific to Michigan. For general information concerning defamation, see the Defamation Law section of this guide.
Elements of Defamation
In Michigan, the elements of a defamation claim are:
- a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff;
- an unprivileged publication to a third party;
- fault amounting at least to negligence on the part of the publisher; and
- either actionability of the statement irrespective of special harm (defamation per se) or the existence of actual harm caused by the publication.
These elements of a defamation claim in Michigan are similar to the elements listed in the general Defamation section, with the following exceptions:
Defamation Per Se
Defamation per se exists if the communication is false and imputes a criminal offense or lack of chastity. Unlike in many other states, defamation regarding one's business or profession is not defamation per se in Michigan. See George v. Senate Democratic Fund, 2005 WL 102717 (Mich. Ct. App. 2005); Pierson v. Ahern, 2005 WL 1685103 (Mich. Ct. App. 2005).
Public Figures and Officials
Under Michigan law, a public official is a person whose position is of such apparent importance that the public has an independent interest in his qualifications or performance "beyond the general public interest in the qualification and performance of government employees." Peterfish v. Frantz, 168 Mich. App. 43, 52 (1988). A plaintiff must prove actual malice to recover for any subject matter that touches upon the official's fitness for office. A public figure is "a person who by his accomplishments, fame or mode of living, or by adopting a calling which gives the public a legitimate interest in his activities, affairs, and character, has become a public personage." Arber v. Sahlin, 382 Mich. 300, 305 n.4 (1969).
In Michigan, the following persons have been considered public officials or figures:
- Law enforcement officials including a sheriff, a deputy sheriff, a university police officer, a bailiff, chief probation officer, the chief of the criminal section of the city law department;
- Municipal figures including a county treasurer, a county engineer, a municipal law director, a city council member, members of the Board of Education; and
- Owners and executives of prominent businesses.
Limited-Purpose Public Figure
A limited-purpose public figure is a person who voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy. However, a private person is not automatically transformed into a limited-purpose public figure merely by becoming involved in or associated with a matter that attracts public attention. A court will look to the nature and extent of the individual's participation in the controversy. New Franklin Enterprises v. Sabo, 480 N.W.2d 326, 328 (Mich. App. 1991).
In Michigan, the following persons have been considered limited-purpose public figures:
- The owner of a private art school was a public figure for the limited range of issues relating to the art school, its administration, and its problems;
- A wife of a public official who injected herself into a public controversy made her a public figure for purpose of the controversy bolstered by the fact she was married to a public figure.
- A retired schoolteacher who worked for the public school system for 30 years, regularly attended and voiced concerns at School Board meetings, and had his own talk show entitled "One Man's Opinion" where he discussed matters relating to the Board.
Privileges and Defenses
Michigan courts recognize a number of privileges and defenses in the context of defamation actions, including substantial truth, opinion and fair comment privileges, wire service defense and the fair report privilege. Michigan has declined to adopt the neutral reportage privilege.
There also is an important provision under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act that may protect you if a third party – not you or your employee or someone acting under your direction – posts something on your blog or website that is defamatory. We cover this protection in more detail in the section on Publishing the Statements and Content of Others.
Fair Report Privilege
In Michigan, the fair report privilege has been codified in Mich. Comp. Law § 600.2911(3) (1961), which provides an absolute privilege against liability for fair and true reports of public and official proceedings. A report is fair and true if the "gist" is substantially true.
Neutral Reportage Privilege
The neutral reportage privilege is not recognized in Michigan. The Michigan Court of Appeals declined to adopt the privilege stating "the press is adequately protected by the burden of proof" that the publication of a statement was made with actual malice, that is, knowing that it is false or acting with a reckless disregard for the statement's truth or falsity. Postill v. Booth Newspapers, Inc., 325 N.W.2d 511, 518 (Mich. Ct. App. 1982). Michigan's Supreme Court has made only passing reference to neutral reportage, referring to the doctrine as "undefined." Rouch v. Enquirer & News, 487 N.W.2d 205, 208 n.3 (Mich. 1992).
Wire Service Defense
Michigan recognizes the wire service defense. See Howe v. Detroit Free Press, Inc., 555 N.W.2d 738 (Mich. App. Ct. 1996). The court in Howe offers a nice definition of the wire service defense in Michigan: "when a local media organization receives a wire service release, it has a duty to read the release to ensure that the face of the story itself does not contain any inconsistencies. The local media organization also has a duty to refrain from publishing the news story if the news organization knows the story is false or if the release itself contains unexplained inconsistencies. The local media organization does not have a duty, however, to independently verify the accuracy of the wire service release." Howe, 555 N.W.2d at 740-41.
Statute of Limitations for Defamation
Each publication typically amounts to a separate cause of action in Michigan. See Grist v. Upjohn, 2 Mich. App. 72 (1965); Celley v. Stevens, 2004 WL 134000 (Mich. Ct. App. 2004). Michigan courts have not decided whether the single publication rule applies in Michigan. For a definition of the "single publication rule," see the Statute of Limitations for Defamation page.