For a Newspaper to be Found Guilty of Libeling a Public Official the Accused Party Must...

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For a Newspaper to be Found Guilty of Libeling a Public Official the Accused Party Must...

Newspapers are meant to keep us informed about public officials, particularly so they can hold them accountable for their actions. However, covering these kinds of public figures can be controversial, and journalist companies can potentially end up being sued for libel.

Public officials, like all other citizens, have the right to defend their reputation from defamation, this article will cover everything you need to know about pursuing a libel lawsuit against a newspaper as a public official.

Understand How Libel Works

Defamation deals with false statements that damage someone’s reputation and is divided into two categories.

  1. Libel is the term used for defamatory statements that have been published as written statements, either in print or online. This is the category of defamation that is typically applied to newspapers.
  2. Slander is the term for defamatory statements that have been spoken out loud by someone and heard by a third party.

How the Supreme Court Made It Harder for Public Officials to Sue Newspapers

  • The First Amendment of the Constitution guarantees our freedom of speech. This is meant to safeguard news organizations in particular so that they can continue to hold figures of power accountable and report on the truth without fear of being punished for defamation.
  • Prior to 1964 public figures could pursue a libel lawsuit under the condition of negligence, meaning that the only thing they had to prove was that the statement had been published recklessly (without knowing whether they had asserted the facts or not.)
  • In the famous defamation case, New York Times Co v. Sullivan, the Supreme Court established a new standard for public figures, whereby they had to prove actual malice. This is required for defamation to have been published intentionally, with a full understanding of its falsehood. The new standard ensured that the First Amendment Rights of newspapers would be protected, and public figures (including government officials) would not be able to impede freedom of the press lightly.

What Requirements Would a Public Official Need to Meet to File a Successful Libel Lawsuit Against a Newspaper?

The requirements for a public official filing a libel lawsuit against a newspaper are relatively similar to those needed by a private person - with the exception of proving actual malice. The following table explains in detail each of the categories involved in proving a successful libel lawsuit:

FalsehoodYou must prove that the newspaper published an objectively false statement. Opinions do not count as defamatory, unless they implicate the statement as truthful in their wording.
Actual maliceThe statement must meet the standard of having been published despite knowing it was false. They must have been aware that the statement could be defamatory to the individual’s reputation.
Proof of damagesDamages must have been caused to the individual who has been defamed, whether in their workplace or personal life. They can fall under any of the following categories:

Punitive - require proof of malice or fraud as harm.

Actual - meant to restore the plaintiff to the financial condition they would have had prior to the defamation occurring. Psychological damages can be included under this category.

Presumed - these are damages which are assumed by the court, usually related to strongly offensive and evidently defamatory statements.

How Public Officials Can Use a Cease and Desist Letter to Mediate Cases of Libel

If you are a public figure, pursuing a public lawsuit for defamation could potentially only increase your notoriety and worsen your reputation. Furthermore, a defamation lawsuit can take time, energy, and most of all, economic resources to pursue. We recommend a cease and desist letter as a viable alternative to a libel lawsuit, these are the benefits and how it works:

  • A well-written cease and desist letter would be addressed to the newspaper which published the defamatory statement, or even to the journalist themselves (depending on who you want to press for damages).
  • The letter would outline the statement that has harmed your reputation, explain the damages you have experienced in detail, and convey your intention to pursue a libel lawsuit unless your requests are met.
  • The requests could range from preventing further libel from being written about you or publishing a formal retraction of the statement that was made.
  • Informing the newspaper of your concerns and your intentions could help them consider your request more seriously.
  • A cease and desist letter does not require an attorney for being written or served to the newspaper, so it is an economically viable option and would be easier than pursuing a formal lawsuit.

DoNotPay’s Cease and Desist Letter

can help you draft a personalized cease and desist letter explaining your situation in a concise and clear manner!

Here’s how it works:

1. Find the Defamation Demand Letters service on .

2. Type the defamatory statement, explain why it is defamatory, and tell us which state it occurred in.

3. That’s it! You’re done. Based on your state, will be able to draft a formal cease and desist letter that contains all the relevant laws and details

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