The “actual malice” defines the level of proof needed to establish a libel case for defamatory statements made regarding public figures or public officials. Actual Malice requires intent or reckless disregard for the truth – “knowledge that the information was false” or published “with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Reckless disregard for the truth requires more than negligence and failure to follow up with generally acceptable reporting standards. It also requires a belief that the statements made were reasonably false. The actual malice standard is most well known from its use in New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254 (1964), where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that public officials who sued a defendant for making defamatory statements needed to prove that the defendants made them with actual malice in order to succeed in a libel lawsuit. The U.S. Supreme Court gave this case Constitutional importance by highlighting the extent of First Amendment rights of free speech and the power of the press.
Excerpt from New York Times v. Sullivan
We are required in this case to determine for the first time the extent to which the constitutional protections for speech and press limit a State’s power to award damages in a libel action brought by a public official against critics of his official conduct.
Respondent L. B. Sullivan is one of the three elected Commissioners of the City of Montgomery, Alabama. He testified that he was “Commissioner of Public Affairs, and the duties are supervision of the Police Department, Fire Department, Department of Cemetery and Department of Scales.”
He brought this civil libel action against the four individual petitioners, who are Negroes and Alabama clergymen, and against petitioner the New York Times Company, a New York corporation which publishes the New York Times, a daily newspaper. A jury in the Circuit Court of Montgomery County awarded him damages of $500,000, the full amount claimed, against all the petitioners, and the Supreme Court of Alabama affirmed. 273 Ala. 656, 144 So.2d 25.
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Such a privilege for criticism of official conduct is appropriately analogous to the protection accorded a public official when he is sued for libel by a private citizen. In Barr v. Matteo, 360 U. S. 564, 360 U. S. 575, this Court held the utterance of a federal official to be absolutely privileged if made “within the outer perimeter” of his duties. The States accord the same immunity to statements of their highest officers, although some differentiate their lesser officials and qualify the privilege they enjoy. But all hold that all officials are protected unless actual malice can be proved. The reason for the official privilege is said to be that the threat of damage suits would otherwise “inhibit the fearless, vigorous, and effective administration of policies of government” and “dampen the ardor of all but the most resolute, or the most irresponsible, in the unflinching discharge of their duties.” Barr v. Matteo, supra, 360 U.S. at 360 U. S. 571. Analogous considerations support the privilege for the citizen-critic of government. It is as much his duty to criticize as it is the official’s duty to administer. See Whitney v. California, 274 U. S. 357, 274 U. S. 375 (concurring opinion of Mr. Justice Brandeis), quoted supra, p. 376 U. S. 270. As Madison said, see supra p. 376 U. S. 275, “the censorial power is in the people over the Government, and not in the Government over the people.” It would give public servants an unjustified preference over the public they serve, if critics of official conduct did not have a fair equivalent of the immunity granted to the officials themselves.
We conclude that such a privilege is required by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.
We hold today that the Constitution delimits a State’s power to award damages for libel in actions brought by public officials against critics of their official conduct. Since this is such an action, the rule requiring proof of actual malice is applicable. While Alabama law apparently requires proof of actual malice for an award of punitive damages, where general damages are concerned malice is “presumed.” Such a presumption is inconsistent with the federal rule. “The power to create presumptions is not a means of escape from constitutional restrictions,” Bailey v. Alabama, 219 U. S. 219, 219 U. S. 239, “the showing of malice required for the forfeiture of the privilege is not presumed but is a matter for proof by the plaintiff. . . .” Lawrence v. Fox, 357 Mich. 134, 146, 97 N.W.2d 719, 725 (1959).