Actual Malice: Definition & Test

Instructor: Jessica Schubert

Jessica is a practicing attorney and has taught law and has a J.D. and LL.M.

After you finish this lesson, you will understand the actual malice test. In addition, you will review when the test applies and how the test impacts court determinations.

What is Actual Malice?

Imagine that you are a news reporter who is writing a story about a public official. You learn that the public official has taken bribes to make certain improvements in the community. You obtain many different sources that support this information. Subsequently, your article is printed in the newspaper. Thereafter, the public official files a lawsuit against you and the newspaper. He claims that the allegations of bribery are false. He sues based on libel. Libel occurs when a false statement is written about another person. The court reviews the case and decides that even though the allegations of bribery may be untrue, you did not have actual malice when you wrote the article. Moreover, you were able to show the court that you believed the bribery statements were true based on your sources. This is an example of the actual malice requirement used in libel cases related to public figures.

Actual malice is a standard which applies in cases where there are allegations of libel or defamation. Defamation is when a false statement is made about a person which causes damage to that person. Actual malice must be proven by the plaintiff, or the person who files the lawsuit against another party, who is the defendant.

The Test

In 1964, a United States Supreme Court decision established the actual malice test. The case, entitled New York Times Company v. Sullivan, involved an advertisement asking for funds for the defense expenses of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The advertisement included several false statements about the conduct of the Alabama State Police Department. These statements formed part of the basis of the libel case brought by Montgomery City Commissioner L.B. Sullivan. The Supreme Court, however, ruled that the First Amendment provides protection for all statements, including even false statements, as long as they are not made in reckless disregard of the truth.

In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court explained a test that can be used to fulfill the actual malice requirement. Under the actual malice test, a plaintiff must show that the defendant knew that the statement was false or that the defendant acted in disregard of the truth of the statement. The statement must also be directed to another person. Moreover, the person against whom the statement was made must have endured damages as a direct result.

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