Substantial Truth

"Truth" is an absolute defense against defamation. See New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), and Time Inc. v. Hill, 385 U.S. 411 (1967). Consequently, a plaintiff has to provide convincing evidence of a defamatory statement's falsity in order to prove defamation.

The law does not require that a statement must be perfectly accurate in every conceivable way to be considered "true." Courts have said that some false statements must be protected for the wider purpose of allowing the dissemination of truthful speech. The resulting doctrine is known as "substantial truth." Under the substantial truth doctrine, minor factual inaccuracies will be ignored so long as the inaccuracies do not materially alter the substance or impact of what is being communicated. In other words, only the "gist" or "sting" of a statement must be correct.

The substantial truth defense is particularly powerful because a judge will often grant summary judgment in favor of a defendant (thus disposing of the case before it goes to trial) if the defendant can show that the statement the plaintiff is complaining about is substantially true, making the defense a quick and relatively easy way to get out of a long (and potentially expensive) defamation case.

Substantial truth can also be a flashpoint for libel cases involving public figures and officials who must show actual malice by the defendant in order to recover. In Masson v. New Yorker Magazine, 501 U.S. 496 (1991), the plaintiff tried to argue that inaccurate quotations were evidence of actual malice. The Supreme Court refused to adopt such a stringent rule, noting the difficulty of taking notes and translating from recordings and the need to edit a speaker's comments into a coherent statement. The Court stated:

We conclude that a deliberate alteration of the words uttered by a plaintiff does not equate with knowledge of falsity for purposes of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan and Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., unless the alteration results in a material change in the meaning conveyed by the statement. (citations omitted)

The Court went on to note the use of quotation marks to directly attribute inaccurate statements to the speaker "bears in a most important way on [this] inquiry, but it is not dispositive in every case." Generally speaking, a publisher is given more leeway for inaccuracies when he is interpreting his sources than when he is purporting to be providing a "direct account of events that speak for themselves." Time, Inc. v. Pape, 401 U.S. 279 (1971).

Some examples of statements that courts have found to be "substantially true":

  • A statement that a boxer tested positive for cocaine, when actually he had tested positive for marijuana. See Cobb v. Time Inc. 24 Media L. Rep. 585 (M.D. Tenn 1995).

  • A statement that an animal trainer beat his animals with steel rods, when actually he had beaten them with wooden rods. See People for Ethical Treatment of Animals v. Berosini, 895 P.2d 1269 (Nev. 1995).

  • A statement that a father sexually assaulted his stepdaughter 30-50 times, when the stepdaughter testified he had done so only 8 times. See Koniak v. Heritage Newspapers, Inc., 198 Mich. App. 577 (1993).

  • A statement that a man was sentenced to death for six murders, when in fact he was only sentenced to death for one. See Stevens v. Independent Newspapers, Inc., 15 Media L. Rep. 1097 (Del. Super. Ct. 1998).

  • A statement that Terry Nichols was arrested after the Oklahoma City Bombing, when actually he had only been held as a material witness. See Nichols v. Moore, 396 F. Supp. 2d 783 (E.D. Mich. 2005).

  • A statement that a man was charged with sexual assault, when actually he had only been arrested but not arraigned. See Rouch v. Enquirer & News of Battle Creek, 440 Mich. 238 (1992).


Subject Area: