Actual Malice Standard

In the landmark case of The New York Times v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 25 (1964), the Supreme Court developed the actual malice concept. An advertisement (equivalent to a story for the Court) appeared in the Times that contained false and defamatory information about a commissioner of the city of Montgomery, Alabama. The commissioner sued, but the Supreme Court, while acknowledging the falsity and defamatory nature of the story, ruled that if the press was to have freedom to write about public officials, it needed to be given a substantial amount of legal protection. A newspaper would only be culpable, the Court ruled, if it acted with actual malice, which the Court went on to define as ‘‘with knowledge that it [the story] was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.’’ In Sullivan this applied to suits brought by public figures; the argument was that these individuals had thrust themselves into the limelight and should expect more critical stories about themselves, and that, given their public position, they would have an easier opportunity to rebut allegations and set the record straight.

In later cases the Court extended the applicability of the actual malice standard to public figures (in Sullivan it was limited to public officials), but it declined to extend it to public issues. Deciding who is a public figure, however, has proven to be no easy matter. It also has not proven straightforward to obtain the information necessary to determine whether a paper acted with actual malice in its reporting.

MILTON HEUMANN

References and Further Reading

  • O’Brien, David. Constitutional Law and Politics, 5th ed., vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2003. 
  • Sullivan, Kathleen, and Gerald Gunther. Constitutional Law, 15th ed. New York: Foundation Press, 2004. 

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • The New York Times Company v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 25 (1964) 

See also Freedom of the Press: Modern Period (1917–Present); Herbert v. Lando, 441 U.S. 153 (1979); Public Figures; Public Officials

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