In New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), the Supreme Court held that public officials suing for defamation must prove by clear and convincing evidence that the defendant acted with ‘‘actual malice.’’ Actual malice means the defendant knew the statement was false or acted with reckless disregard for its truth or falsity. It required this high degree of defendant culpability to protect the First Amendment rights of persons who criticize public officials and to encourage a robust debate on matters of public concern. Otherwise, citizens might be inhibited from criticizing the government. The Court was concerned that state defamation law would have a chilling effect on the exercise of freedom of speech and press.
Subsequent decisions have identified categories of individuals who fall within the definition of public official. They include elected officials on state and federal levels, candidates for public office, and government employees who appear to have substantial responsibility for control of public affairs. What is not so clear is which lower level government employees are public officials. In cases involving police officers, public school teachers, and principals, for example, lower courts have reached inconsistent conclusions.
PHILIP L. MERKEL
References and Further Reading
Cases and Statutes Cited