It is important to remember that truth is an absolute defense to defamation, including per se defamation. If the statement is true, it cannot be defamatory. For more information see the section on Substantial Truth.

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

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