Arizona Defamation Law

Note: This page covers information specific to Arizona. For general information concerning defamation, see the Defamation Law section of this guide.

Arizona Elements of Defamation

In Arizona, the elements of a defamation claim are:

  1. a false statement concerning the plaintiff;
  2. the statement was defamatory;
  3. the statement was published to a third party;
  4. the requisite fault on the part of the defendant; and
  5. the plaintiff was damaged as a result of the statement.

Morris v. Warner, 160 Ariz. 55, 62 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1988).

To be “defamatory,” a statement must be false and bring the defamed person into disrepute, contempt, or ridicule, or impeach her honesty, integrity, virtue, or reputation. Godbehere v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 162 Ariz. 335, 341 (Ariz. 1989).

These elements of a defamation claim in Arizona are similar to the elements discussed in the general Defamation Law section, with the following exceptions:

Defamation Per Se

Arizona distinguishes between statements that constitute libel per se and libel per quod. Libel per se are written communications which “on their face and without the aid of any extrinsic matter” tend to “bring any person into disrepute, contempt or ridicule” or “impeach the honesty, integrity, virtue or reputation.” Ilitzky v. Goodman, 57 Ariz. 216, 220‑21 (Ariz. 1941). In contrast, libel per quod consists of written communications which “on their face do not fall within the definition [of defamation] but which by reason of special extraneous circumstances actually do.” Id. at 221.

Arizona also distinguishes between statements that constitute slander per se and slander per quod. In Arizona, a statement that does any of the following is slander per se:

  • Charges a contagious or venereal disease, or that woman is not chaste; or
  • Tends to injure a person in his profession, trade, or business; or
  • Imputes the commission of a crime involving moral turpitude.

Modla v. Parker, 495 P.2d 494, 4 n.1 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1972). Slander per quod are “all slanderous utterances which are not slanderous per se.” Boswell v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 152 Ariz. 1, 6 n.4 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1985) approved as supplemented by Boswell v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 152 Ariz. 9 (Ariz. 1986).

The distinction between libel per se and per quod and slander per se and per quod matters because it effects the type of damages a plaintiff must allege to prevail. To recover for libel or slander per quod, a plaintiff must allege special damages, i.e., lost profits or other "pecuniary loss." Boswell, 152 Ariz. 1, 6 n.4. In contrast, to recover for libel or slander per se, a plaintiff does not have to allege special damages and may instead allege non-pecuniary damages, such as damage to his reputation. Moreover, in cases of libel or slander per se, damages may be presumed if:

  1. The plaintiff is a private figure and the alleged defamatory statement involves a matter of purely private concern; Dombey v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 150 Ariz. 476, 481 (Ariz. 1986) or
  2. Actual malice is proven. Id.

Public Officials

Arizona courts have considered whether certain lower-level government employees qualify as public officials. They have held that the following individuals, among others, are public officials:

Public Figures and Limited-Purpose Public Figures

In Arizona, to classify a person as a public figure, the person must have achieved “‘such pervasive fame or notoriety that he becomes a public figure for all purposes and in all contexts.” Dombey, 150 Ariz. at 480 (quoting Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 351 (1974).

The Arizona Supreme Court has recognized that an individual may become a limited-purpose public figure for a certain event or controversy when he “‘voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy. . . .’” Id. (quoting Gertz, 418 U.S. at 351).

In determining whether a person is a limited-purpose public figure, Arizona courts will consider whether the person has “‘thrust[] himself or his views into public controversy to influence others’” and whether the person’s “‘position with respect to matters of public concern gives him access to the media on a regular and continuing basis.’” Id. at 483 (quoting Hutchinson v. Proxmire, 443 U.S. 111, 135 (1979).

The Arizona Supreme Court has held that a person “‘is not automatically transformed into a public figure just by becoming involved in or associated with a matter that attracts public attention.’” Id. (quoting Wolston v. Reader’s Digest Ass’n, Inc., 443 U.S. 157, 167 (1979). Rather, the person must voluntarily assume a position that invites attention. Id. at 485 (quoting McDowell v. Paiewonsky, 769 F.2d 942, 950 (3rd Cir. 1985). In that regard, the Court has stated that “doing business with the government, being swept up in a controversy over an issue of public interest or concern, being named in articles creating a public controversy, and defending oneself against charges leveled in the media are all insufficient to automatically transform a private individual into a public figure.” Id. at 484.

Arizona courts and the 9th Circuit have held the following individuals, among others, to be limited-purpose public figures:

  • A “publicly self‑acknowledged former hoodlum and organized crime enforcer” who testified against a mob boss in exchange for immunity from prosecution. Scottsdale Publ’g, Inc. v. Superior Court, 159 Ariz. 72, 73, 74 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1988).
  • A World War II veteran who had authorized a biography and solicited press coverage of that work. Thomas v. Los Angeles Times Commc’ns. LLC, 45 Fed. Appx. 801, 803 (9th Cir. 2002).
  • The insurance agent of record for an Arizona county, where the insurance agent made recommendations resulting in substantial expenditures from the public and financially benefited from his position, although he was not actually employed by the county. Dombey, 150 Ariz. at 484‑85.
  • An individual, in suing his former employer for defamation, who had contacted the media regarding his claims of wrongful termination and sent his complaint to approximately twenty companies in related business fields. Prendeville v. Singer, 155 Fed. Appx. 303, 305-06 (9th Cir. 2005).

On the other hand, Arizona courts have found the following individuals and organizations, among others, to be private figures:

  • A company selling an electronic parts catalog where the company was not involved in any public controversy prior to the defendant’s allegedly defamatory statements. The Court specifically held that the company’s use of advertising did not make it a public figure. Dealer Computer Servs., Inc. v. Fullers’ White Mountain Motors, Inc., No. CV07-00748-PCT-JAT, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83311 (D. Ariz. Oct. 16, 2008).
  • A corporation selling diamonds and other precious stones, despite its use of mail and telephone solicitations. Antwerp Diamond Exch. of Am. Inc. v. Better Bus. Bureau of Maricopa Cnty., Inc., 130 Ariz. 523, 527 (Ariz. 1981) disapproved on other grounds in Dun & Broadstreet v. Greenmoss Builders, 472 U.S. 749, 753 n.1 (1985).

Actual Malice and Negligence

Arizona courts apply a negligence standard to defamation claims brought by private figures seeking compensatory damages. Peagler v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 114 Ariz. 309, 315 (Ariz. 1977).

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 the standards and terminology mentioned in this subsection.

Privileges and Defenses

Arizona 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.

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 Comment Privilege

In Arizona, the fair comment privilege “is limited to discussions of matters which are of legitimate concern to the community as a whole because they materially affect the interests of all the community.” Phoenix Newspapers, Inc. v. Church, 103 Ariz. 582, 595 (Ariz. 1968).  If actual malice is shown, however, the privilege is defeated. Id.

The fair comment privilege protects both media and non-media defendants when the plaintiff is a public official.  The Arizona Supreme Court ruled that regardless of the defendant's media status, "when the plaintiff is a public official and the speech is of public concern, [then] the plaintiff bears the burden of showing that a statement is provably false before an action for defamation can lie." Turner v. Devlin, 174 Ariz. 201, 205 (1993).

The Arizona Supreme Court in the past has also explicitly recognized pure opinion as protected speech. MacConnell v. Mitten, 131 Ariz. 22, 25 (1981) (finding a statement "was pure opinion and not actionable").  It is unclear whether this recognition survived Turner and Milkovich v. Lorain Journal Co., 497 U.S. 1 (1993), however.

Fair Report Privilege

In Arizona, the precise scope of the fair report privilege, also known as the public records privilege, is not clear because there is only one case in which the Arizona courts have applied the privilege.

In Sallomi v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 160 Ariz. 144, 147 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1989), the Court of Appeals of Arizona held that the “public records privilege” applied to articles which were “a fair and accurate abridgment of the public records used.” In that case, the Arizona Republic published articles about the apprehension of a hitman at a local restaurant, which it described as a “hangout for narcotics dealers and users” owned by a man being investigated for fraud and attempted extortion. Id. at 145. The owners of the restaurant filed suit for defamation. The information in the articles was obtained from interviews with police officers, affidavits submitted to support searches of various locations, a grand jury indictment, and a booking slip on file at the Phoenix Police Department. Id. at 145‑46. The Court reviewed the articles, the search warrant affidavits, grand jury indictment, and booking slip and concluded that although the newspaper may have relied on interviews with police officers, which are not a public record, because the information obtained was available in the affidavits, indictment, and booking slip, the privilege applied. Id. at 146‑47.

Neutral Reportage Privilege

The CMLP has not identified any cases in Arizona concerning the neutral reportage privilege. If you are aware of any, please contact us. The 9th Circuit has mentioned the adoption of the neutral reportage privilege in other jurisdictions but does not appear to have specifically adopted it itself. See Flowers v. Carville, 310 F.3d 1118, 1128 (9th Cir. 2002).

Wire Service Defense

A federal district court in Arizona has applied the wire service defense in at least one case. In In re Med. Lab. Mgmt. Consultants v. Am. Broad. Cos., Inc., 931 F. Supp. 1487, 1492 (D. Ariz. 1996), the court held that the defense applied to an ABC-affiliate in Phoenix that broadcast an edition of “Prime Time Live” but played no part in the planning, reporting, production, or editing of the broadcast.

Retraction or Correction

By statute in Arizona, the type of damages a plaintiff may recover from a newspaper, magazine, or radio or television broadcaster can be limited by the publication of a retraction. A.R.S. § 12‑653.02 provides:

In an action for damages for the publication of a libel in a newspaper or magazine, or of a slander by radio or television broadcast, the plaintiff shall recover no more than special damages [i.e. damages with respect to the plaintiff’s property, business, trade, profession or occupation] unless a correction is demanded and not published or broadcast, unless the plaintiff shall prove the publication or broadcast was made with actual malice. The plaintiff shall serve upon the publisher at the place of publication, or broadcaster at the place of broadcast, a written notice specifying the statements claimed to be libelous and demanding that the same be corrected. The notice and demand shall be served within twenty days after actual knowledge of the plaintiff of the publication or broadcast of the statements claimed to be libelous.

If a correction is demanded within the time period prescribed by A.R.S. § 12‑653.02 and a correction is not published or broadcast within three weeks, the plaintiff may recover damages for loss of reputation and punitive damages if she can prove actual malice. A.R.S. § 12‑653.03.

The applicability of the retraction statute in all cases in questionable because the Arizona Supreme Court has held that the retraction statute violates art. 18, § 6 of the Arizona constitution to the extent that it eliminates “general damages for both loss of reputation and emotional harm, preventing those damaged by defamation from recovering general damages for actual injury.” Boswell v. Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., 152 Ariz. 9, 19 (Ariz. 1986).

The retraction statute also does not apply not apply “to any publication or broadcast made within thirty days preceding any election, if such publication or broadcast is designed to in any way influence the results of such election.” A.R.S. § 12‑653.05.

At least one federal court in Arizona has stated that the retraction statute applies only to “libel actions based on newspaper or magazine articles” and does not apply to comments made on an online forum. Dealer Comp. Servs. v. Fullers’ White Mt. Motors, Inc., No. CV07-00748-PCT-JAT, 2008 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 83311 at *19 (D. Ariz. Oct. 16, 2008).

Other Statutory Protections for Periodicals and Broadcasters

A.R.S. § 12‑653 provides:

An action for damages shall not lie against the editor, publisher, or proprietor of a newspaper or periodical for publication of a report, proceedings or other matter published at the instance of a public officer acting in compliance with law.

A.R.S. § 12‑652 provides:

  1. The owner, licensee or operator of a visual or sound radio broadcasting station or network of stations, and the agents or employees of the owner, licensee or operator, shall not be liable for damages for a defamatory statement published or uttered in or as a part of a visual or sound radio broadcast by one other than the owner, licensee or operator, or agent or employee thereof, unless it is alleged and proved by the complaining party that the owner, licensee, operator or agent or employee has failed to exercise due care to prevent publication or utterance of the statement in the broadcast. The exercise of due care shall be construed to include a bona fide compliance with federal law or regulations of a federal regulatory agency.
  2. An owner, licensee or operator, or the agents or employees of such owner, licensee or operator of a station or network of stations shall not be liable for damages for defamatory statements published or uttered over the facilities of such station or network by or on behalf of a candidate for public office.
  3. In an action for damages for a defamatory statement published or uttered in or as a part of a visual or sound radio broadcast, the complaining party shall be allowed only the actual damages alleged and proved.

CMLP has not identified any Arizona cases in which these statutes have been applied. If you are aware of any, please contact us.

Statute of Limitations for Defamation

The statute of limitations for defamation is one (1) year. See A.R.S. § 12‑541. The Court of Appeals of Arizona has stated that the general rule is that the statute of limitations begins to run upon publication; however, the Court has also created an exception to the general rule and held that the statute of limitations may instead begin to run upon discovery “in those situations in which the defamation is published in a manner in which it is peculiarly likely to be concealed from the plaintiff, such as in a confidential memorandum or a credit report.” Clark v. Airesearch Mfg. Co. of Ariz., Inc., 138 Ariz. 240, 242 (Ariz. Ct. App. 1983).

By statute, the single publication rule applies in Arizona. See A.R.S. § 12-651. The statute provides, in pertinent part:

  1. No person shall have more than one cause of action for damages for libel, slander, invasion of privacy or any other tort founded upon a single publication, exhibition or utterance, such as any one edition of a newspaper, book or magazine, any one presentation to an audience, any one broadcast over radio or television or any one exhibition of a motion picture. Recovery in any action shall include all damages for any such tort suffered by the plaintiff in all jurisdictions.
  2. A judgment in any jurisdiction for or against the plaintiff upon the substantive merits of any action for damages founded upon a single publication, exhibition or utterance as described in subsection A shall bar any other action for damages by the same plaintiff against the same defendant founded upon the same publication, exhibition or utterance.

For a definition of the "single publication rule," see the Statute of Limitations for Defamation section of this guide.

The CMLP is not aware of any cases in Arizona that apply the single publication rule in the context of a statement published on the Internet. If you are aware of any Arizona cases that acknowledge the single publication rule in the Internet context, please notify us.


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