Answered: The Court Required Proof of Actual Malice to Convict in a Libel Suit In?
Defamation is a civil wrong that occurs when someone makes false and harmful statements about another individual or group. There are two types of defamation: libel is a method of defamation posted online or published in a physical medium and slander is a type of defamation that does not leave a record and is often spoken.
To establish a defamation case, the false claims must result in harm to the victim’s reputation, future opportunities, and even physical or mental health. Upon responding to this crime, individuals often preface with a cease and desist letter, establishing the fact that the individual making injurious claims needs to stop before further legal action is taken against them. To learn more about defamation and how to understand the court’s required proof of actual malice when convicting in a libel suit, see below.
Establishing Proof of Malice — New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that the freedom of speech protections in the First Amendment restrict the ability of American public officials to sue for defamation. Inherently, if a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit is a public official or is running for office, they must prove the typical elements of defamation in addition to the expectation of “actual malice”. These protections were intended to protect members of the public or press making assumptions from being subjected to lawsuits.
New York Times Co. v. Sullivan
- This case was brought forth by L. B. Sullivan, a police commissioner who was enraged by a New York Times full-page advertisement that was published and authored by supporters of Martin Luther King Jr.
- The ad incorrectly portrayed the number of times Dr. King had been arrested and portrayed the police in an “aggressive and incorrect manner”
- Sullivan won the case, the New York Times appealed the verdict and the Supreme Court unanimously voted that the Alabama court’s ruling violated the First Amendment — supporting the freedom of the press
- The Supreme Court has extended the decision’s legal standard for defamation to “all public figures” — setting an extremely high burden of proof
What is actual malice?
- Actual malice is a broad spectrum term that can be shown in many ways, as long as the claim is proven in a court of law through evidence
- All circumstances of interaction can be shown in court, including threats, defamatory statements, evidence proving the existence of a rivalry, ill will, or hostility between parties
- Any evidence that shows a reckless disregard of the plaintiff’s rights via the defendant is admissible in court
- In sum, if you are a public figure or official, you must bear the burden of proving that a defendant acted with actual malice — through clear and convincing evidence
To prove actual malice:
To prove actual malice, you must prove that the defendant could:
- Have known that the statement was false
- Have acted with the reckless disregard for the statement’s truth or false, or the individual’s integrity
Who Has to Prove Actual Malice?
Although many people are semi-public figures, legally, a public figure can be separated into three groups; public officials, public figures, and limited-purpose public figures.
|Public figures||All-purpose figures, or private individuals who occupy persuasive power and influence:
|Limited-purpose public figures||Individuals who have thrust themselves at the forefront of controversies to influence the resolution of the conflict and/or issue, or those who’ve distinguished themselves in a specific field:
Evaluating Public Figures and Officials
There are different components involved in establishing “actual malice” that can vary between groups, but all categorizations for officials of influence are evaluated using the same criteria. To evaluate, typically these burdens are established before moving forward with a case:
Those who hold positions of authority in the government are an interest to the public even if a controversy has not occurred:
- The malice standard extends to statements touching on any aspect of public life
- Even after leaving office, officials must meet the actual malice standard due to the public’s continued interest in the misdeeds of their leaders
For instance, Ex-US President Barack Obama will have to meet this standard for the rest of his life, as he spends two presidential terms living in the public eye and continues to garner a mass following and public interest
All-purpose public officials
Those who are socially recognized as famous and have mass followings:
- The malice standard extends to any aspect of their private life
- The passage of time does not impact their status as public figures, as long as the source of their fame is of increased interest to the public
For example, Kim Kardashian West has to meet this standard for the rest of her life, as she has one of the largest mass-media followings in the world.
A limited-purpose public figure
Those who voluntarily entered a controversy or has gained recognition in a limited but prominent field but who have not reached an all-encompassing “celebrity” level:
- The malice standard applies to subject matter related to the controversy in question or to the field in which the individual is prominent, not to the other person’s life
- The passage of time does not impact an individual who has achieved fame through participating in a controversy, as long as they maintain an interest in the underlying controversy at hand
For instance, in many states, teachers are recognized as limited-purpose public figures — they cannot be sued for defamation and cannot face defamatory lawsuits if they engage in scandalous or controversial behavior.
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If you fall under this criteria and can establish “actual malice” — you can file a cease and desist letter against the defendant. Oftentimes, these letters are expensive, difficult to draft, and can incur exponential legal fees.
The cease and desist letter drafts will detail the information about the case, demand retraction, warn against future statements, and will order that the accused abides by Illinois state statutes. All you need to do is:
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