Public Official to Recover Damages for Libel
In New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 11 L. Ed. 2d 686, 84 S. Ct. 710 (1964), the United States Supreme Court held the First and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit "a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with 'actual malice.'" New York Times, 376 U.S. at 279-80, 11 L. Ed. 2d at 706.
Three years later, the Court extended the application of the New York Times "actual malice" standard to speech about "public figures," but provided little guidance as to which plaintiffs fell into that category. See Curtis Publishing Co. v. Butts, 388 U.S. 130, 18 L. Ed. 2d 1094, 87 S. Ct. 1975 (1967).
In Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., 418 U.S. 323, 41 L. Ed. 2d 789, 94 S. Ct. 2997 (1974), the Supreme Court elaborated on the types of defamation plaintiffs, whereby private individuals were distinguished from both public officials and public figures, the latter of whom were then divided into three categories.
The Gertz Court described involuntary public figures, all purpose public figures, and limited purpose public figures. Id. at 345, 41 L. Ed. 2d at 808.
Following Gertz, a defamation plaintiff who is a public official or public figure "may recover injury to reputation only on clear and convincing proof that the defamatory falsehood was made with knowledge of its falsity or with reckless disregard for the truth," which is the New York Times "actual malice" standard. Id. at 342, 41 L. Ed. 2d at 807.