The Libel of Public Figures in the United States

The Story:

Libel law, and its relationship to the first amendment to the U.S. constitution, remains a recurring political issue of some significance. Given precedents set by the Supreme Court of the United States in the 1960s and 1970s, it is very nearly impossible for high-profile politicians to win lawsuits against publications that have printed untruths at their expense. There are calls for the Supreme Court to reconsider those precedents.


The dispute over libel law in the U.S. is especially notable at this moment. Quite recently, a former candidate for Vice President, Sarah Palin, unsuccessfully sued The New York Times over statements it made (in an editorial) criticizing her alleged “incitement” of violence.

The law is that if a plaintiff in a defamation lawsuit is a public official or is running for public office, or is simply a “public figure” engaged in controversies, not only must plaintiff prove the normal elements of defamation—publication of a false defamatory statement to a third party—she also has to establish that the statement was made with “actual malice.” Palin was not able to do this to the satisfaction of the jury.

The Thing to Know:

Last summer the Supreme Court declined to take the case of Berisha v. Lawson.  By declining, the Court left in place a lower court ruling in favor of the author/defendant. But two dissenters, Thomas and Gorsuch, indicated that they believe the Court should soon review the basics of the law in this area from scratch.

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