Suppose you get into an argument with a neighbor, and that neighbor responds by publicly defaming your character. For example, he could say that you stole from a local, small business. As a private citizen, winning a defamation case against you neighbor would be entirely possible, provided that the statement was false, and your neighbor knew it. As a private citizen, you are only required to prove that your neighbor was negligent and that the statement caused reputational harm. However, if you were a public figure, a member of Congress or a celebrity, perhaps, it would be more difficult because you must prove actual malice.
The concept of actual malice was introduced in 1964 with the Supreme Court’s decision in New York Times v. Sullivan. This landmark case set the legal precedent for public officials to have to prove actual malice in defamation cases. Essentially, this means that a public official (the rule was later expanded to apply to public figures), would have to prove that the statement was made with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard for the truth. Those in support of the ruling justified it by saying that it would be impossible to completely avoid making mistakes in free debate. They worried that without actual malice in place, journalists would be too afraid of a defamation suit to perform their duty to the public.
Actual malice was originally put in place to protect journalists from defamation suits. However, when the ruling was expanded to include all public figures, the question arose about whether journalist plaintiffs should be included in this category. Traditionally there have been two types of public figures: those who are recognized broadly and those who are only recognized within a specific sphere of influence. Local journalists might fall into the latter category but some national journalists could be included in the former group.
The courts have tried to settle the debate on several occasions. One of these cases in Utah was Wayment v. Clear Channel in which, a local news reporter in Salt Lake City sued a former employer for defamation. The trial court initially ruled that as a news reporter, Wayment had thrust herself into the public’s view and become a public figure. However, this ruling was thrown out by the Supreme Court, which held that Wayment was not a public figure and did not have to prove actual malice.
There is also legal precedent for journalists to qualify as public figures. For example, in the case San Antonio Express News v. Dracos, television reporter Ted Dracos was found to be a public figure by nature of his occupation. As a result, Dracos would be required to prove actual malice if he were to win his defamation case. Cole v. Westinghouse Broad. Co., Inc. is another case in which a news reporter filed a defamation suit against his former employer and was found to be a public figure. While it is not impossible to win a defamation case if required to prove actual malice, it is substantially more difficult. Such cases tend to favor the defendant unless the plaintiff has clear proof that that the defendant deliberately made a false statement.
The answer to whether or not journalists qualify as public figures remains unsettled. It would not be unreasonable to classify journalists as limited-purpose public figures: a public figure known only within a specific sphere of influence. It would certainly be justifiable. However, it is notable that such a classification could potentially disrupt the free debate that actual malice was created to protect. By forcing public figures to prove actual malice, the courts ensured that press would be able to report without fear that an honest mistake would lead to a defamation suit. However, if journalists are also considered public figures, they can no longer protect themselves from defamation itself. This could allow someone who disagrees with the reporter to slander or defame them as a means of discrediting them. The fear of such an incident could lead to self-censorship in journalism.
It would be inadvisable to allow journalists to speak without consequence. Certainly, it would lead to a distrusting public as journalists became nothing more than sensationalized tabloid writers. However, requiring them to prove actual malice may hinder journalism as well. In the future, it may be necessary to create a new standard for defamation cases involving journalists.