Defamation Law in US: Does It Matter If The Plaintiff Is A Public Figure Or Not?

By | August 5, 2021

Last Updated on by Admin LB

In the article, “Defamation Law in US: Does It Matter If The Plaintiff Is A Public Figure Or Not?” author Pishati Pranava explains the law of defamation in the United State and how it clashes with the First Amendment to the US Constitutions along with some leading case laws.


Defamation is usually regarded as harm to one’s reputation induced by a false statement of fact. It is defined as a remark that damages the reputation of a third party. Defamation is a tort that encompasses both libel (defaming with written remarks) and slander (spoken statements).

In a rather contradictory sense, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects freedoms of religion, expression, assembly, and petition. It protects free expression by forbidding Congress from limiting the press or people’s rights to talk freely. It also ensures citizens’ freedom to peacefully gather and petition their government.

This article will examine Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323 (1974), a landmark US Supreme Court case that set the threshold of First Amendment protection against private defamation claims and other instances where the outcome differed based on whether the plaintiff was a public figure/official or not?

Clash with the First Amendment

The First Amendment provides religious, speech, and assembly freedoms, as well as the right to petition. It prohibits Congress from favouring one religion over another or limiting an individual’s religious activities. It most importantly protects free expression by forbidding Congress from limiting the press or people’s rights to talk freely.

The First Amendment ensures citizens’ freedom to peacefully assemble and petition their government.

Prior to 1964, libel (written defamation) was not protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution[1]. Defamation, like several other common-law torts, was not subject to legal provisions. In Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire (1942)[2], the Supreme Court referred to libel as an unprotected category of expression, comparable to obscenity or fighting language.

There are some well-defined and strictly circumscribed types of speech such as obscene language, profanity, libel, and abusive or ‘fighting’ words, the prohibition and punishment of which have never been deemed to create any constitutional problem.

In The New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)[3], the courts first recognized that the interests of the first amendment conflicted with and limited state defamation law. Later, when they classified libel as speech and expression, they found that the First Amendment rights of free speech and free press frequently clashed with the objectives protected by defamation law.

The press exists primarily to inform the public about matters of public importance. Individuals, on the other hand, have the right not to be exposed to lies that cast doubt on their integrity.

New York Times Co. v. Sullivan

In this case, the Supreme Court held that the public figure plaintiff must show that the false, defamatory statements were made with “actual malice”. According to the Sullivan court, “actual malice” means that the defendant made the defamatory statement “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.”

In addition, the Sullivan court stated that where the threshold is actual malice, the plaintiff must establish actual malice by “clear and convincing” evidence, rather than the normal burden of proof in a civil action.

The specific phrase used by the Sullivan decision on this point is that the petitioner must demonstrate “the compelling clarity which the constitutional standard demands.” According to the Court’s conclusions, jurors were too frequently penalizing defendants for the unpopularity of the ideas stated, rather than the damage caused by a false and defamatory remark.

In addition, the Court determined that free expression would be “chilled” for fear that a small factual error could lead to a large damage award for a plaintiff[4]. (Chilling effect is the concept of avoiding free speech and association rights protected by the First Amendment as a result of government laws or actions that appear to target expression.)

The Court also decided that because public officials are immune from litigation for any defamatory statements they may make in the course of their responsibilities, allowing them to file such claims, at least for unintentional mistakes, would be inequitable.

State courts have sought to balance the public interest in free and unrestricted expression against the state’s interest in safeguarding the reputations of its citizens from defamatory assaults[5]. To balance these opposing interests, the courts have taken into account a variety of variables.

These variables include the plaintiff’s standing (public official or public/private figure), the defendant’s status (media/nonmedia), and the subject matter of the statement (public/private subject). Depending on how a court determines these criteria, the threshold of culpability and the sort of damages permitted will change.

In Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc., a person detained for allegedly selling obscene materials sued a local radio station for failing to emphasize that the items recovered by the police were merely allegedly indecent. The majority judgment, delivered by Justice Brennan, ruled that a plaintiff must demonstrate real malice if the communication involved “matters of public or general concern.

“The position of the plaintiff was irrelevant under the Rosenbloom test; it was the public or private character of the speech that decided whether the New York Times liability standards would apply.”

The majority decided that because the first amendment was intended to protect speech concerning public affairs, the “chilling effect” of a defamation suit was forbidden unless genuine malice could be demonstrated[6]. Despite the fact that only three justices endorsed the test, numerous lower courts adopted the majority’s Rosenbloom public/private problem distinction.

Gertz v. Robert Welch Inc

As per the facts of this case, a family hired Gertz to sue a police officer who had killed their kid. In a publication named American Opinion, the John Birch Society accused Gertz of being a “Leninist” and a “Communist-fronter” because he opted to represent plaintiffs who were suing a law enforcement officer.

Gertz received a jury judgment and a $50,000 prize, but he lost his libel suit because the trial judge decided that the magazine had not met the Supreme Court’s real malice threshold for libel in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964). The trial judge’s ruling was affirmed by the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals.

While deciding the case, Justice Powell rejected the Rosenbloom majority’s public/private problem distinction and authorized the state to set its own threshold of defamation liability, subject to specific restrictions.

The Court determined that the primary objective of adopting a constitutional libel standard was to strike a compromise between the problem of media self-censorship and the social value of safeguarding people’s reputations from defamatory lies.

The majority considered the Rosenbloom plurality’s suggested test too difficult to implement and dealt exclusively with the problem of self-censorship without taking into account the state’s interest in avoiding defamatory lies.

In an opinion written by Justice Powell, the Court upheld the first amendment principles and rules articulated in the New York Times but rejected the extension of the judicial entitlement in Rosenbloom, effectively constitutionalizing major areas of defamation law that had previously been unaffected by any of the previous decisions[7].

Defamation Law in US: Does It Matter If The Plaintiff Is A Public Figure Or Not?

(1) According to the Court’s judgments, public figures (public officials and public celebrities) may recover for defamation only if there is clear and convincing evidence that the defamatory falsehood was spoken with knowledge of its falsity or with a reckless contempt for the truth.

(2) All people defamed by the news media may collect assumed and punitive damages only if they demonstrate culpability via clear and conclusive evidence that the defamatory statements were produced with knowledge of its falsity or careless disregard for the truth.

(3) States may no longer impose responsibility without fault, but they may specify the amount of fault necessary for recovery by private individuals defamed by the news media, at least when serious harm to reputation is obvious on the face of the statement.

(4) The states’ interest in protecting reputation extends no further than compensation for actual injury; thus, damages may not be presumed unless a private person defamed by the news media can show knowing-or-reckless-falsity by clear and convincing proof, and actual damages must be proven by competent evidence.

The Courts have imposed an actual damages requirement on private individuals to whom the constitutional entitlement does not apply, but it did not change state rules allowing a plaintiff to recover presumed liability when actual malice in the journal of an actionable per se statement is proven.


Unlike the Court’s prior use of a single common law model to defend first amendment, new guidelines were made to cover the deficiencies in defamation law. While the Court ruled that the first amendment does not require a private figure to show real malice, it did set certain limitations on the state’s ability to enact its own defamation statute.

The Courts have ruled that where the plaintiff is a private individual, the state cannot apply the conventional common law concept of strict responsibility. The first amendment requires a judgment of at least negligence[8]. Because the state’s interest in protecting persons from defamatory falsehoods conflicts with a first amendment interest.

The Court concluded that the state’s remedies can only go so far as to preserve that legitimate state interest. If assumed damages are allowed, the jury will have much too much flexibility in awarding damages that exceed the actual hurt suffered.

As a result, the Court limited the amount of damages to “actual harm.” “Actual injury” includes impairment of reputation and position in the community, personal humiliation, and mental agony and suffering,” as long as enough proof of these sorts of injuries is presented.


[1] ‘The First Amendment Encyclopedia’ (, 2021), Available Here <> accessed 3 August 2021

[2] Chaplinsky v. New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942)

[3] New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964

[4] New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964)

[5] Mathews D, ‘American Defamation Law: From Sullivan, Through Greenmoss, And Beyond’ (kb.osu.odu, 1987), Available Here

[6]Rosenbloom v. Metromedia, Inc 403 U.S. 29 (more)91 S. Ct. 1811; 29 L. Ed. 2d 296

[7] Eaton, J. (1975). The American Law of Defamation Through Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. and beyond: An Analytical Primer. Virginia Law Review, 61(7), 1349-1451. doi:10.2307/1072262

[8] Mathews D, ‘American Defamation Law: From Sullivan, Through Greenmoss, And Beyond’ (kb.osu.odu, 1987), Available Here

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