Public Officials: Navigating Defamation & The Media

When it comes to defamation law, especially libel and slander lawsuits, the law considers a wide range of competing interests when public figures and the media are involved. The public’s access to information, individual reputations, and public officials’ ability to perform their duties efficiently are all considered when defamation is alleged. To no one’s surprise, the interplay between these interests can become a contentious situation rather quickly.

How public officials can navigate defamation is entirely up to them, but they should understand the best possible ways to avoid issues with the media and the law.

Here’s a better look at Public official’s defamation.

What is Defamation?

Defamation is defined as a false statement that injures another person’s reputation and public standing. Libel and slander are both types of defamation. The elements of a defamation claim against the media vary depending on the parties’ identities.

In general, the plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit must show that the defendant’s false statement painted the plaintiff in a bad light. If a media personality or the publication they work for falsely claims the plaintiff, or public official in this case, is a liar or a criminal, it can be considered defamatory. But the plaintiff usually needs to show the defendant either knew or should have known the statement was indeed false at the time it was stated.

Conditional Privilege and Absolute Privilege

The First Amendment emerged from the principle that public discussion is a political duty. In a defamation case bought by a public official against their critics, including the media, conditional privilege protects most speech made in good faith and the public interest.

Good faith means that the speaker must believe their comment is true, without failing to discern its falsity. Those in the media are protected from defamation claims when their publication fairly comments on matters of public concern. But if the press recklessly and knowingly publishes false information, the privilege is moot.

Members of the legislative branch, such as the U.S. Congress, can invoke absolute privilege, shielding them entirely from defamation cases. This privilege is written in the Constitution, which extends to statements during debates and speeches that may not be related to specific legislation.

Similarly, absolute privilege includes judges and court appointees, which provides protection for these public officials when they make a statement that can harm someone’s reputation and character.

A Case-by-Case Approach

How a court will decide a defamation case always leans on the underlying facts at hand. The speaker and plaintiff’s profession, the surrounding circumstances, and the subject matter are all critical parts of a court’s reasoning.

When the plaintiff is a public official, judges will usually err on the side of allowing more speech instead of restricting it for First Amendment Rights. The First Amendment presupposes that right conclusions are more likely collected out of a wide range of tongues than through any kind of authoritative selection.

About PGUI

Professional Governmental Underwriters, Inc., is a full-service risk management company dedicated to assisting public, educational and non-profit entities in the management of their professional liability exposures including educators liability insurance. We are dedicated to providing state-of-the-art professional underwriting management and loss control advisory services on behalf of our designated carriers. For more information, call us toll-free at (800) 586-6502.