Florida has a broad conception of public officials, a category of government actors who must prove actual malice in order to prevail on a defamation claim. The Florida Supreme Court found a police officer to be a public official where he was a "highly visible representative of government authority who has power over citizens and broad discretion in the exercise of that power." Smith v. Russell, 456 So.2d 462 (Fla. 1984). Florida courts have found that a corrections officer, an administrator of large public hospital, and even a harbormaster were public officials.
Unlike most states, Florida still recognizes criminal libel. Chapter 836 of the Florida Statutes does not define the elements of criminal libel, but it does specifically prohibit false statements that harm a bank or other financial institution's reputation or accuse a female of being unchaste. To the extent that the statute remains valid, criminal libel is a first-degree misdemeanor. However, a Florida appeals court found Fla. Stat. § 836.11 -- which deals with anonymous defamation of individuals or religious groups -- to be unconstitutional. State v. Shank, 795 So.2d 1067 (Fla.Ct.App., 4th Dist. 2001).
Actual Malice and Negligence
In Florida, a private figure plaintiff bringing a defamation lawsuit generally 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