Proving Fault: Actual Malice and Negligence

Unlike other countries that hold a publisher liable for every defamatory statement regardless of what steps he or she took prior to publication, under U.S. law a plaintiff must prove that the defendant was at fault when she published the defamatory statement. In other words, the plaintiff must prove that the publisher failed to do something she was required to do. Depending on the circumstances, the plaintiff will either need to prove that the defendant acted negligently, if the plaintiff is a private figure, or with actual malice, if the plaintiff is a public figure or official.

Celebrities, politicians, high-ranking or powerful government officials, and others with power in society are generally considered public figures/officials and are required to prove actual malice. Unlike these well-known and powerful individuals, your shy neighbor is likely to be a private figure who is only required to prove negligence if you publish something defamatory about her. Determining who is a public or private figure is not always easy. In some instances, the categories may overlap. For example, a blogger who is a well-known authority on clinical research involving autism may be considered a public figure for purposes of controversies involving autism, but not for other purposes.

We discuss both of these standards and when they apply in this section.

Actual Malice

In a legal sense, "actual malice" has nothing to do with ill will or disliking someone and wishing him harm. Rather, courts have defined "actual malice" in the defamation context as publishing a statement while either

  • knowing that it is false; or

  • acting with reckless disregard for the statement's truth or falsity.

It should be noted that the actual malice standard focuses on the defendant's actual state of mind at the time of publication. Unlike the negligence standard discussed later in this section, the actual malice standard is not measured by what a reasonable person would have published or investigated prior to publication. Instead, the plaintiff must produce clear and convincing evidence that the defendant actually knew the information was false or entertained serious doubts as to the truth of his publication. In making this determination, a court will look for evidence of the defendant's state of mind at the time of publication and will likely examine the steps he took in researching, editing, and fact checking his work. It is generally not sufficient, however, for a plaintiff to merely show that the defendant didn't like her, failed to contact her for comment, knew she had denied the information, relied on a single biased source, or failed to correct the statement after publication.

Not surprisingly, this is a very difficult standard for a plaintiff to establish. Indeed, in only a handful of cases over the last decades have plaintiffs been successful in establishing the requisite actual malice to prove defamation.

The actual malice standard applies when a defamatory statement concerns three general categories of individuals: public officials, all-purpose public figures, and limited-purpose public figures. Private figures, which are discussed later in this section, do not need to prove actual malice.

Public Officials

The "public officials" category includes politicians and high-ranking governmental figures, but also extends to government employees who have, or appear to the public to have, substantial responsibility for or control over the conduct of government affairs. Courts have interpreted these criteria broadly, extending the public figure classification to civil servants far down the government hierarchy. For example, the supervisor of a county recreational ski center was held to be a "public official" for purposes of defamation law. See Rosenblatt v. Baer, 383 U.S. 75 (1966). Some courts have even extended the protection to all individuals engaged in matters of public health, such as hospital staff, given the importance of health issues for the general public. See Hall v. Piedmont Publishing Co., 46 N.C. App. 760, 763 (1980).

In general, if an individual is classified as a public official, defamatory statements relating to any aspects of their lives must meet the actual malice standard of fault for there to be liability. Moreover, even after passage of time or leaving office, public officials must still meet the actual malice standard because the public has a continued interest in the misdeeds of its leaders.

Public Figures

There are two types of "public figures" recognized under defamation law: "all-purpose" public figures and "limited-purpose" public figures.

All-purpose public figures are private individuals who occupy "positions of such persuasive power and influence that they are deemed public figure for all purposes. . . . They invite attention and comment." Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 345 (1972). For these individuals, the actual malice standard extends to virtually all aspects of their lives.

This category includes movie stars, elite professional athletes, and the heads of major corporations. Tom Cruise is one; that character actor you recognize instantly but can't quite name is probably not an all-purpose public figure.

As with public officials, the passage of time does not cause this class of individuals to lose their public figure status as long as the original source of their fame is of continued interest to the public.

Limited-Purpose Public Figures

The second category of public figures is called "limited-purpose" public figures. These are individuals who "have thrust themselves to the forefront of particular controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved." Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (U.S. 1974). They are the individuals who deliberately shape debate on particular public issues, especially those who use the media to influence that debate.

This category also includes individuals who have distinguished themselves in a particular field, making them "public figures" regarding only those specific activities. These limited-purpose public figures are not the Kobe Bryants, who are regarded as all-purpose public figures, but rather the journeymen basketball players of the league.

For limited-purpose public figures, the actual malice standard extends only as far as defamatory statements involve matters related to the topics about which they are considered public figures. To return to our basketball example, the actual malice standard would extend to statements involving the player's basketball career; however, it would not extend to the details of his marriage.

As regards figures who become prominent through involvement in a current controversy, the law is unfortunately rather murky. In general, emphasis is placed not on whether the controversy is a subject of public interest, but rather:

  • The depth of the person's participation in the controversy.
  • The amount of freedom he or she has in choosing to engage in the controversy in the first place (e.g., if they were forced into the public light). See Wolston v. Reader's Digest Association, 443 U.S. 157 (1979).
  • Whether he has taken advantage of the media to advocate his cause. See Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448 (U.S. 1976).

Keeping in mind the difficulty of making the determination of who is a limited-purpose public figure, we've collected the following cases which might be helpful. Courts have found the following individuals to be limited-purpose public figures:

  • A retired general who advocated on national security issues. See Secord v. Cockburn, 747 F.Supp. 779 (1990).
  • A scientist who was prominent and outspoken in his opposition to nuclear tests. See Pauling v. Globe-Democrat Publishing Co., 362 F.2d 188 (1966).
  • A nationally-known college football coach accused of fixing a football game. See Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130 (1967).
  • A professional belly dancer for a matter related to her performance. See James v. Gannet Co., 40 N.Y.2d 415 (1976).
  • A Playboy Playmate for purpose of a parody. See Vitale v. National Lampoon, Inc., 449 F. Supp 442 (1978).

Courts have found the following individuals not to be limited-purpose public figures (and therefore private figures):

  • A well-known lawyer and civic leader engaged in a very public trial involving police brutality. See Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1972).
  • A socialite going through a divorce who both collected press clippings on herself and held press conferences regarding the divorce. See Time, Inc. v. Firestone, 424 U.S. 448 (U.S. 1976).
  • A Penthouse Pet for purposes of parody. See Pring v. Penthouse Int'l Ltd., 695 F.2d 438 (1982).

Individuals who are considered to be limited-purpose public figures remain so as long as the public has an "independent" interest in the underlying controversy. Unlike all-purpose public figures, it is relatively easy for a limited-purpose public figure to lose his status if the controversy in which he is involved has been largely forgotten. But most will still maintain their status. For example, a woman who had publicly dated Elvis Presley over a decade earlier, but who had since married and returned to "private" life, was found to remain a public figure for stories related to her relationship with Presley. See Brewer v. Memphis Publishing Co., 626 F.2d. 1238 (5th Cir. 1980).

Evaluating Public Officials, Public Figures, and Limited-Purpose Public Figures

A public official is a person who holds a position of authority in the government and would be of interest to the public even if the controversy in question had not occurred.

  • The actual malice standard extends to statements touching on virtually any aspect of the public official's life.
  • Even after passage of time or leaving office, public officials must still meet the actual malice standard because the public has a continued interest in the misdeeds of its leaders.
All-purpose public figures are those whose fame reaches widely and pervasively throughout society.
  • The actual malice standard extends to statements involving virtually any aspect of their private lives.
  • Passage of time does not affect their status as public figures as long as the source of their fame is of continued interest to the public.
A limited-purpose public figure is either:
    1. One who voluntarily becomes a key figure in a particular controversy, or
    2. One who has gained prominence in a particular, limited field, but whose celebrity has not reached an all-encompassing level.
  • The actual malice standard applies only to subject matter related to the controversy in question or to the field in which the individual is prominent, not to the person's entire life.
  • Passage of time does not affect an individual who has achieved fame through participation in a controversy as long as the public maintains an "independent" interest in the underlying controversy.

See this Chart of Public vs Private Individuals for additional examples.

Defining who is a public figure for purposes of First Amendment protections is a question of federal constitutional law, and therefore the federal courts say on the matter is decisive and binding on state courts. Accordingly, state courts cannot remove public-figure status from those who have been deemed public figures by the federal courts, but states can broaden the scope of the the classification. For example, while the Supreme Court has not spoken on the status of educators, most states have recognized teachers as a class of public figures. But some states, for example California, have not done so. Consult your State Law: Defamation section for specific guidelines on your jurisdiction.

Negligence Standard and Private Figures

Those who are not classified as public figures are considered private figures. To support a claim for defamation, in most states a private figure need only show negligence by the publisher, a much lower standard than "actual malice." Some states, however, impose a higher standard on private figures, especially if the statement concerns a matter of public importance. You should review your state's specific law in the State Law: Defamation section of this guide for more information.

A plaintiff can establish negligence on the part of the defendant by showing that the defendant did not act with a reasonable level of care in publishing the statement at issue. This basically turns on whether the defendant did everything reasonably necessary to determine whether the statement was true, including the steps the defendant took in researching, editing, and fact checking his work. Some factors that the court might consider include:

  • the amount of research undertaken prior to publication;

  • the trustworthiness of sources;

  • attempts to verify questionable statements or solicit opposing views; and

  • whether the defendant followed other good journalistic practices.

While you can't reduce your legal risks entirely, if you follow good journalistic practices you will greatly reduce the likelihood that you will be found negligent when publishing a defamatory statement. Review the sections in this guide on Practical Tips for Avoiding Liability Associated with Harms to Reputation and Journalism Skills and Principles for helpful suggestions.


Subject Area: