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Why is the status of a plaintiff so important in defamation law?

The status of the plaintiff (person bringing a lawsuit) in defamation law is important because there are different legal standards for different types of plaintiffs. The legal standard changes depending upon whether the defamation plaintiff is a private or public figure. Private figures must show that a defendant was negligent, or at fault, in order to prevail. But, so-called public figures or public officials who sue for defamation must meet a higher legal standard. They must show that a defendant acted with actual malice by clear and convincing evidence in order to recover. The courts have defined actual malice as knowing that a statement was false or acting in reckless disregard as to whether a statement was true or false.

This difference in legal standards shows why a significant amount of defamation litigation focuses on whether the plaintiff is a private or public figure. Defamation defendants will often argue that plaintiffs are public figures, while plaintiffs will often contend that they are private figures.


What is a retraction statute?

A retraction statute is a law that allows a defamation plaintiff to retract, or take back, a defamatory statement. Retraction statutes vary considerably from state to state in terms of their coverage and net effect. Under many statutes, a plaintiff has to request a retraction within a certain time frame. Then, the defendant must comply in a certain time frame. In many states, if a defendant issues a proper retraction, the defendant can reduce (but not eliminate) the damages they will have to pay. For example, in Tennessee, if a defendant issues a proper retraction, the defendant cannot be held liable for punitive damages. (Punitive damages are damages designed to punish the wrongdoer; they are controversial in some circles because they go beyond compensatory damages, which are damages designed to compensate the plaintiff for wrongdoing.)


Is truth a defense in libel lawsuits?

Truth is an absolute defense to libel claims because one of the elements that must be proven in a defamation suit is falsity of the statement. If a statement is true, it cannot be false, and therefore there is no prima facie case of defamation. There are numerous jurisdictions (including Florida) that have adopted the substantial-truth doctrine, which offers protection to a defendant of a defamation claim as long as the “gist” of the story is true.

In the 1964 ruling New York Times v. Sullivan, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the First Amendment protects the publication of all statements regarding public officials unless the statement was made with actual malice — “with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard of whether it was true or false.” The Court set a new standard by requiring that a public-official defamation plaintiff show evidence of actual malice by clear and convincing evidence. If the plaintiff is a private person, then only negligence needs to be proven, assuming the defamatory statement was false. However, if the private person wants to recover punitive damages, she must show that actual malice existed, as well.


 
 
 
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