Categories: Practice of Law

Public figures are fighting back against fake news.

In the most recent headline from the world of celebrity defamation cases, E. Jean Carroll is suing former President Trump for statements he made after she accused him of sexual assault. In a 2019 book and excerpt in New York magazine, Carroll, a longtime advice columnist for Elle magazine, accused Trump of sexual assault in the mid-1990s. Trump responded that Carroll was “totally lying” and not his “type.” Carroll sued Trump for defamation, claiming his statements had harmed her reputation. But Carroll—like all public figure defamation plaintiffs—has an uphill battle before her. To succeed, Carroll will have to prove that Trump’s statements were false, and—because Carroll is a public figure—she will also have to show that Trump acted with “actual malice.” The actual malice standard often proves to be too high a threshold for most public figures to cross, and most cases are lost on that prong—regardless of whether the statement was false. In fact, Johnny Depp was one of the few public figures in recent years to win a defamation suit.

So, what would it mean if the actual malice requirement was rescinded?

The seminal decision in New York Times Company v. Sullivan and its progeny are the backbone of defamation law in this country. These cases hold that public officials and public figures claiming defamation must prove that the allegedly defamatory statement was made, “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” In other words, with “actual malice.” On the other hand, a private figure, or one who has not sought out the limelight, need only show the false statement was made negligently. Prior to Sullivan, all plaintiffs fell under the negligence standard.

Public figures who must meet this “actual malice” standard fall into two categories: (1) all-purpose public figures, with “pervasive fame or notoriety,” like Johnny Depp; and (2) limited-purpose public figures, like Carroll, who, in the words of Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., achieve their status by “thrust[ing] themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.” The Court rationalized that both categories of public figures have “invite[d] attention and comment.” Moreover, because “public figures enjoy “greater access to the channels of effective communication” than private individuals, they are better able to “contradict the lie or correct the error.”

In today’s age of social media, do these justifications still hold true? When Sullivan and its progeny came down, there was a clear delineation between public and private figures. Typically, public figures had media access, and private figures did not. Today’s social media landscape muddles that line. We are all just one post, tweet, or TikTok away from becoming public figures.

In 2019, in a case strikingly similar to Carroll’s, the Supreme Court declined to review a defamation case filed by Kathrine McKee against Bill Cosby. In 2014, McKee publicly accused Cosby of forcibly raping her 40 years earlier. In response, Cosby’s attorney authored and subsequently leaked an allegedly defamatory letter. Excerpts of the letter were disseminated via the Internet and published by news outlets around the world. McKee argued that the letter deliberately distorted her personal background to “damage her reputation for truthfulness and honesty, and further to embarrass, harass, humiliate, intimidate, and shame” her. Applying Sullivan and its progeny, the Court concluded because McKee had “‘thrust’ herself to the ‘forefront’” of the public controversy over “sexual assault allegations implicating Cosby,” she was a “limited-purpose public figure” who needed to show actual malice—regardless of whether the statements about her were false.

In a lone dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas noted that “in an appropriate case, [the Court] should reconsider the precedents” requiring public figures to satisfy an actual-malice standard. Justice Thomas later double-downed on his proffer in his dissents in Berisha v. Lawson, and most recently in Coral Ridge Ministries Media, Inc. v. Southern Poverty Law Center. In Berisha, pointing to the shift in the media landscape since Sullivan, Justice Neil Gorsuch joined Justice Thomas in calling to review the Sullivan decision, noting our new media world “facilitates the spread of disinformation.”

According to these Justices, in recent years Sullivan has become less of a shield and more of a sword. The “actual malice” standard allows spreaders of conspiracy theories, false accusations, and fake news to be virtually untouchable. In an era where misinformation spreads like wildfire, has the actual malice standard allowed journalists to become sloppy and irresponsible? Under this legal standard a journalist is better off printing a story without fact-checking. In fact, failing to thoroughly investigate, standing alone, does not prove actual malice. If the Court abolished that standard, public figures would be like every other defamation plaintiff and would only need to show that the false statement was made carelessly. In other words, instead of the defendant knowingly printing misinformation, a plaintiff would only need to show that the defendant didn’t bother checking if the information was true or false before making it.

Under this precedent, for years reporters, and individuals alike have been shielded from consequences of publishing falsehoods about public figures. Removing the “actual malice” standard would have sweeping effects on journalists and news platforms, and would make reputable news organizations more vulnerable to attack and open to further scrutiny. But responsible journalists would still remain protected. Truth remains an absolute defense to a defamation claim.

Between 2018 and 2020 the number of defamation suits filed increased by 30%. With “fake news” on the rise, more individuals falling into the “public figure” category, and technology moving at warp speed, the Court may have no choice but to rethink Sullivan. While it is unlikely that that 50 years of settled precedent would be overturned, Sullivan just might, at the very least, be revisited.

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