The District no longer allows presumed damages for defamation per se directed at public figures, following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974). See El-Hadad v. United Arab Emirates, 496 F.3d 658 (D.C. Cir. 2007) (affirming unpublished lower court decision implying that presumed damages are no longer available for public figures). The court in El-Hadad noted that D.C. law provides for presumed damages for defamation per se directed at private figures.
Federal courts in D.C., applying D.C. law, have ruled that corporate plaintiffs are considered public figures as a matter of law in lawsuits against mass media defendants that involve "matters of legitimate public interest." See Oao Alfa Bank v. Center for Public Integrity, 387 F.Supp.2d 20, 48 (D.D.C. 2005) (citing other cases). The opinions of federal district courts are not definitive on the meaning of D.C. law, but other cases might choose to follow this rule. Should they decide to do so, then any corporation -- no matter how large -- would have to prove actual malice in order to prevail in such cases. There is no reason to believe this rule would not apply to lawsuits involving citizen media defendants because the underlying rationale focuses on the characteristics of corporations, not those of the defendant in the lawsuit.
Actual Malice and Negligence
In the District, a private figure plaintiff bringing a defamation lawsuit must prove that the defendant was at least negligent with respect to the truth or falsity of the allegedly defamatory statements. 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 these standards.
Privileges and Defenses