Defamation can be explained as a false statement about a person whether written or verbal that causes harm to the person and puts down his/her reputation and subjects the person to ridicule. Defamation law prevents publications that are false. There are two types of defamation, namely libel and slander. Oral defamation is called slander and written defamation is called libel.
False statement is one of the essential elements of defamation. To bring an action for defamation, the plaintiff should be able to prove that the statement was:
- false and defamatory,
- referred to the plaintiff,
- published to a third party, and
- negligent on the publisher’s part, if the statement is of public interest.
Both punitive and compensatory damages are granted in a successful defamation cases. Main defense available in defamation cases is ‘truth’. If the defendant proves the alleged defamatory statement is true s/he will not be liable for damages. Additionally, if the defamatory statements were made by legislative or executive officers while in course of office or judicial officers during court proceedings, no action can be taken against the defendant even if the statement was false.
Defamation actions are common among celebrities. However, when a celebrity brings a defamation suit, s/he will have to prove ‘actual malice’. This element was introduced by the U.S. Supreme Court in a case namely, New York Times v. Sullivan (1965). In this case, the Supreme Court held that when celebrities or public figure file defamation cases, they should make a showing that the statement was made with actual malice. The public figure should prove that the defendant made the statement knowing it to be false and made it recklessly with disregard to its truthfulness. The inability of the public figure to prove actual malice will make him/her loose the case.
A public figure in the current context is not just media persons, politicians, or high officials. It also includes two other categories of individuals such as: limited public figure, and involuntary public figure. Limited public figure will include common man engaged in an activity of public interest. For example, participants of reality shows like American Idol. Involuntary public figure includes people who did not actually want publicity but circumstance dragged them into publicity. For example, a person accused in high profile crimes who was later found innocent. Both limited public figure and involuntary public figure will have to prove actual malice in defamation cases.