Note: This page covers information specific to Pennsylvania. For general information concerning defamation, see the Defamation Law section of this guide.
Elements of Defamation
Although Pennsylvania courts invoke a complicated statutory definition found in 42 Pa. Cons. Stat. §§ 8341-8345 (see especially § 8343), in practice the elements of a defamation claim are similar to the elements discussed in the general Defamation Law section. However, Pennsylvania law has some characteristics that differ slightly from the general section's description of defamation law:
Public and Private Figures
Pennsylvania defines when a plaintiff is a public official, all-purpose public figure, and limited-purpose public figure in more-or-less the way described in the Actual Malice and Negligence section. Some examples of individuals deemed to be public officials or all-purpose public figures by Pennsylvania courts include:
- police officers;
- public high school teachers and coaches;
- a school board director;
- a candidate for judge;
- a celebrity with access to the media; and
- a union official.
Some examples of individuals deemed to be limited-purpose public figures by Pennsylvania courts include:
- a locally renowned, Philadelphia-based singer who posed for as a centerfold and was extensively interviewed in an accompanying article in Playboy magazine;
- a licensed architect and civil engineer who participated in numerous public building projects that had been the subject of public controversy; and
- the president of an art foundation at the time the foundation's paintings went on a widely publicized international art exhibition tour.
Some examples of individuals deemed to be private figures by Pennsylvania courts include:
- a person who allegedly misrepresented himself as a member of the board of a non-profit organization;
- a dentist who received public reimbursement from state funds for dental work performed on lower-income patients; and
- an individual planning to host of a private party when a neighbor called a newspaper to complain about the party.
Actual Malice and Negligence
In Pennsylvania, a private figure plaintiff bringing a defamation lawsuit must prove that the defendant was at least negligent with respect to the truth or falsity of the allegedly defamatory statements. Public officials, all-purpose public figures, and limited-purpose public figures must prove that the defendant acted with actual malice, i.e., knowing that the statements were false or recklessly disregarding their falsity. See the general page on actual malice and negligence for details on these standards.
Privileges and Defenses
Pennsylvania courts recognize a number of privileges and defenses in the context of defamation actions, including substantial truth, the opinion and fair comment privileges, and the fair report privilege.
Pennsylvania does not recognize the the neutral reportage privilege. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has neither recognized or rejected the wire service defense, but lower courts have consistently refused to recognize this defense.
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.
Most of the privileges and defenses to defamation can be defeated if the plaintiff proves that the defendant acted with actual malice. This does not apply to immunity under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.
The Fair Report Privilege
Pennsylvania recognizes the fair report privilege. The privilege applies to reports and summaries of information contained in government reports or discussed in government proceedings. This includes court proceedings, court records, and open meetings. It also applies to government press releases, including police press releases.
The privilege applies to "fair and accurate" accounts of the underlying documents or proceedings. A report is fair and accurate if it is "substantially accurate." A plaintiff may overcome the fair report privilege by showing that the defendant acted with actual malice.
Neutral Reportage Privilege
Wire Service Defense
The Pennsylvania Supreme Court has neither recognized or rejected the wire service defense, but lower courts have consistently refused to recognize this defense.
Statute of Limitations for Defamation
The CMLP could not locate any cases in Pennsylvania that apply the single publication rule in the context of a statement published on the Internet. If you are aware of any Pennsylvania cases that acknowledge the single publication rule in the Internet context, please notify us.