Note: This page covers information specific to New Jersey. For general information concerning defamation, see the Defamation Law section of this guide.
Elements of Defamation
In New Jersey, the elements of a defamation claim are:
- a false statement about the plaintiff;
- communication of the statement to a third party;
- fault of the defendant amounting at least to negligence; and
- damages suffered by the plaintiff.
See DeAngelis v. Hill, 847 A.2d 1261, 1267-68 (N.J. 2004). These elements of a defamation claim in New Jersey are similar to the elements listed in the general Defamation Law section, with the following exceptions:
Public and Private Figures
New Jersey follows the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75 (1966), in determining who is a public official for purposes of defamation law. Under this test, the public official designation applies to "those among the hierarchy of government employees who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of governmental affairs.” Costello v. Ocean County Observer, 643 A.2d 1012, 1021 (N.J. 1994) (quoting Baer). Reading this test expansively, New Jersey courts have consistently held that police officers are public officials. Other examples of public officials include a former school district athletic director, a tax assessor, a building inspector, an incumbent mayor.
New Jersey courts have a two-part test for deciding who is a limited-purpose public figure. First, the defamatory statement must involve a public controversy, namely a real dispute with an outcome that “affects the general public or some segment of it.” See McDowell v. Paiewonsky, 769 F.2d 942, 948 (3d Cir. 1985). Second, the court must consider “the nature and extent of plaintiff's involvement in that controversy.” See McDowell, 769 F.2d at 948. The following individuals, among others, have been held to be limited-purpose public figures in New Jersey:
- A candidate for a condominium board of directors, because his candidacy thrust him into the public eye, see Gulrajaney v. Petricha, 885 A.2d 496, 505 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 2005);
- A lawyer representing the New Jersey School Boards Association, at a time when the association's insurance problems generated widespread and justifiable media attention, see Schwartz v. Worrall Publ'ns, 610 A.2d 425, 428-29 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1992); and
- Land use applicants, because their construction project were fairly and reasonably the subject of public interest, see LoBiondo v. Schwartz, 733 A.2d 516, 526 (N.J. Super. Ct. App. Div. 1999).
Actual Malice and Negligence
When a private figure plaintiff sues for defamation over statements of purely private concern (i.e., not related to a matter of legitimate public concern), New Jersey courts require the plaintiff to show that the defendant was at least negligent. In cases involving matters of legitimate public concern, the plaintiff must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice, i.e., knowing that the statements were false or recklessly disregarding their falsity. Public officials, all-purpose public figures, and limited-purpose public figures also must prove actual malice. See the general page on actual malice and negligence for details on the standards and terminology mentioned in this subsection.
Privileges and Defenses
New Jersey courts recognize a number of privileges and defenses in the context of defamation actions, including substantial truth, the fair report privilege, and the opinion and fair comment privileges.
In addition, New Jersey statutes recognize a privilege for cable television broadcasters who complying with their obligations under any State or Federal law, regulation, or policy requiring that broadcast services be made available to members of the public. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 48:5A-50.
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
The fair report privilege protects republishing “reports of defamatory statements made in judicial and other official proceedings,” in the interest that information from official proceedings be made available to the public. Costello v. Ocean County Observer, 643 A.2d 1012, 1018 (N.J. 1994). The report need not be “exact in every immaterial detail”, only “substantially correct.” However, a publisher who omits exculpatory language from the official report and thereby conveys an erroneous impression will lose the privilege.
For example, the privilege will cover the publication of official statements regarding police investigations, issued by police department heads and county prosecutors, unless the plaintiff can prove actual malice in the publication. See N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:43-1.
Neutral Reportage Privilege
New Jersey courts do not recognize a neutral reportage privilege. However, the extensive protections available under the New Jersey fair report privilege are analogous to a neutral reportage privilege. See Costello, 643 A.2d at 1028 (N.J. 1994) (O'Hern, J., concurring).
Wire Service Defense
The CMLP has not identified any cases in New Jersey concerning the wire service defense.
Statute of Limitations for Defamation
New Jersey has a one (1) year statute of limitations for defamation. See N.J.S.A. 2A:14-3.
New Jersey courts have adopted the single publication rule. Barres v. Holt, Rinehart & Winston, Inc., 378 A.2d 1148, 1151 (N.J. 1977). For a definition of the "single publication rule," see the Statute of Limitations for Defamation section.
A New Jersey Superior Court has held that the single publication rule applies to Internet publications. See Churchill v. State, 876 A.2d 311, 319 (N.J. Super. Ct. App .Div. 2005). If other New Jersey courts follow the Churchill case, the statute of limitations should run from the date of first posting, unless more than merely technical changes are made to the website, triggering “republication.”