Libel and Slander
When someone publishes or communicates a false statement about you to another, the law provides a potential avenue for you to recover for damage to your reputation through laws preventing defamation (aka libel or slander). However, your level of public exposure can have a direct impact on your ability to recover.
First Amendment to the United States Constitution
Under current law, before public figures can recover on a defamation claim, they must prove that a defamatory comment was made with knowledge that it was false, or with a reckless disregard for its truth or falsity (the malice standard).
By contrast, private figures need only prove that the individual in question failed to act with reasonable care (the negligence standard). But for individuals falling on the public exposure spectrum somewhere between Lady Gaga and a social media abstainer, it can sometimes be difficult to determine which standard applies.
To address this, the law recognizes something called a “limited purpose” public figure, defined as “an individual [who] voluntarily injects himself or is drawn into a particular public controversy and thereby becomes a public figure for a limited range of issues.” Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc. 418 U.S. 323, 351 (1974).
Under this standard, having a position of power in a business, being a known or controversial expert in a specialized field, or even having some kind of social media following in a particular area, may require you to meet a malice standard when a defamatory statement about you concerns the specific topic in which you hold that position.
Courts reason that this standard is warranted because those who already enjoy a public audience have greater access to the channels of communication necessary to counter criticism and expose false information. These lines in the law are far from clear, especially as access to an audience is easier today than ever before in history.
What is the Actual Malice Standard?
Actual malice is the legal standard established by the Supreme Court for libel cases to determine when public officials or public figures may recover damages in lawsuits against the news media.
Another murky question pertains to your standard for recovery when you, guilty of no more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time, get pulled into a public controversy.
In some jurisdictions, courts have suggested the malice standard is appropriate because your newfound fame affords you access to media, meaning that you are presumed to have a way to meaningfully respond to accusations against you.
However, other courts will permit recovery under the negligence standard, so long as you did not actively pursue a spot in the limelight.
While none of us would ever wish to be in the position of having to fight false accusations attacking our character or our livelihood, the law does provide each of us with tools we can use to set the record straight.
If you find yourself in this situation, contact Dhillon Law Group so that you know your options to regain your good name.
Karin Sweigart handles First Amendment and defamation matters as Counsel at Dhillon Law Group.